Visiting scholar shares thoughts on politics in Egypt and move to America

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Amr Hamzawy presents his talk 'Anti-democratic Deceptions: How Egyptian Liberals Endorse Autocracy' to the CDDRL community. 27 Oct. 2015. Sadaf Minapara

In a Q and A with The Stanford Daily, CDDRL Program on Arab Reform and Democracy Visiting Scholar Amr Hamzawy remarks on his time in the Egyptian parliament and the factors that led him and his family to leave the country for America. 

Amr Hamzawy is a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and an associate professor of political science at Cairo University. Before arriving at Stanford, Hamzawy played critical roles in the Egyptian political scene, both during and after the Arab Spring — including a term in the first parliament elected after Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

The Stanford Daily sat down with Hamzawy to discuss his work at Stanford and the state of Egyptian politics today.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Why did you choose to spend time here at Stanford, and what’s the focus of your research here?

Amr Hamzawy (AH): Well, I had to leave Egypt. The background is I took a clear position against the military coup. I was in fact banned from travel for a year in Egypt in 2014, which was basically one of the tools the repressive government uses to intimidate opponents. In 2015 my ban was lifted. I was, however, banned from teaching at my home university, Cairo University. The environment was becoming increasingly fascist, increasingly repressive for anyone who expresses a different point of view opposed to the one narrative coming from the ruling establishment. There were increased pressures as far as I [was] concerned, as far as my family [was] concerned. My wife is an actress so she [had] been banned from working as well, and she has been pressured in different ways. So we decided, in fact against our initial wish, to leave Egypt.

What happened was I basically wrote to several colleagues and friends, and my first choice was CDDRL, where [Stanford professor of political science and sociology] Larry Diamond is a very good friend of mine and [Stanford professor of political science and former U.S. Ambassador] Mike McFaul is a very good friend of mine.

Stanford was a choice based on the reputation of CDDRL, my friendship with Mike and Larry and the excellent reputation of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy, where [research associate] Hesham Sallam is at CDDRL. That’s basically what brought me to Stanford, and I wanted to be as far away as possible from Egypt. I keep saying it’s pretty far, and one of the greatest assets of the time difference is that you wake up and the day in Egypt has passed — so you take bad news in one shot, which is a big difference than following by the minute what is happening and unfolding all day.

In terms of my focus at Stanford, I am writing a book — it’s a research assignment so far — I’m working on a book where the working title is “Egypt’s Illiberal Liberals.” It’s an attempt to look at why the Egyptian middle class, which basically took out to the streets in 2011 to demand political freedom and democracy, decided to to give up on democratization and to once again move in the direction of calling on the military establishment to interfere and freeze pluralist politics.

One of the key issues which I am working on is how liberal, intellectual elites have been able to market the army interference and the military coup as a step to protect the nation state, to save society and to save the Egyptian identity.


TSD: You have studied and worked around the world. You completed a Ph.D. in Berlin, and you were also working with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut. How does Stanford compare?

AH: It’s more of a vibrant intellectual environment. Of course I am not undermining the positive assets of my university in Berlin or of Carnegie in D.C. or in Beirut, where in different ways the environment has been inspiring as well.

But as of now, it relates to my role in the last four years because I went through two phases: the first phase where I was part of an attempt to make Egypt a democratic place — prior to 2011, [through] writing primarily, but post 2011… after I was elected to parliament — and a second phase where I [was] basically classified as a state enemy [in] July 2013. In a way, Stanford is an excellent place to reflect on the experience personally and to reflect in more of an objective manner — looking at what went wrong.

The big question in the literature is: Was it doomed to fail — was Egypt going to fail no matter what, or did key actors…commit key mistakes, tactical and strategic mistakes, which led Egypt to where it is today? That is sort of the big debate in the last two years, and Stanford is an excellent place to engage that debate and to try to contribute to it.


TSD: You founded a political party in 2011. However, you withdrew from Egypt’s current, 2015 parliamentary elections. Why?

AH: We founded the Egypt Freedom Party in 2011, and our platform has always been a liberal democratic platform — where you can compare our platform to the ideas of liberal parties in Europe or the U.S. — with a clear and pronounced commitment to a market economy and social justice, based on a socially responsible market economy as it’s framed in the European experience.

We fashioned a platform that enabled us to be elected to the “true parliament” — the only true parliament Egypt had in 2011 and 2012…. The level of competition was true, between people representing different shades, old and new. No one should imagine that 2011 eradicated the Mubarak regime. No, the Mubarak elite were very much out there, and it was their right. That’s very much what I believe in: As long as they are not implicated in human rights violations, they should be part of politics. We made the mistake… of trying to ban them from participating in politics. It was a shortsighted decision, which parliament took in 2012, and it backfired. It’s one of the big mistakes which I count as one of my own mistakes within the past four years.

At any rate, the elections of 2011… had the greatest voter turnout in modern Egyptian history of around 60 percent overall.

We had transparent management of the elections. Yes, religion was used, mosques were used, churches were used; but overall, it was a real breakthrough, so we participated, and I was elected to parliament. I tried to advance a democracy-based agenda — tried to push for security sector reform, transitional justice.

Parliament was dissolved six months after it started its work. The Assembly was sent home, and a year of increased tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military establishment ended in a military coup in July 2013, basically freezing pluralist politics. Since then, what we have in Egypt is by no means a democratic environment or even a semi-democratic environment which would encourage someone like me to participate.

The one challenge you face is by participating you justify and legitimate that framework, that autocratic framework. When you participate in parliamentary elections in an autocratic or semi-autocratic setting or in a fascist setting, you have to have clarity with regard to how to weigh legitimating an unjust framework and becoming effective. My calculation is that I’m not going to be effective in the fascist environment, and I will only be used as a legitimating name.

TSD: You are known for criticizing the knee-jerk support that a majority of Egyptian liberals have shown Egypt’s current military regime since the 2013 coup. As a secular, liberal Egyptian yourself, has your criticism cost you any friends?

AH: Yes, many. On a personal note, that was the most shocking development in the last four years… to wake up to see most of [your friend and colleagues] giving up on democratic ideals and siding with the military establishment interfering in governance issues and freezing pluralist politics.

You see some of your friends not only buying into fascism — not only buying into the military dictatorship, but even playing the role of legitimating the dictatorship, of… justifying the bloodshed, justifying the military dictatorship, justifying the one-man show, which is backfiring.


TSD: What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding that Americans have about Egyptian politics today?

AH: I guess the biggest misunderstanding is a conventional one, which is to place your bet on the ruling establishment no matter what the ruling establishment is doing. The Americans did place their bet on Mubarak’s ruling establishment up until the very last day of the 18 days [of the 2011 Egyptian revolution], and then they shifted course.

In regards to [former Egyptian President] Mubarak and [current Egyptian President] Sisi you are placing your bet for regional issues, for international security concerns, for terror, on dictators who are basically creating more of an environment for terrorism domestically.


TSD: On a lighter note, you are a well-known personality in Egypt and the Arab world. In fact, you are married to an Egyptian movie star. Do people recognize you around the Bay Area?

AH: Yes, they do — Egyptians and Arabs. We were recently in San Francisco, [my wife] Basma and I, and she was stopped, and I was stopped by Egyptians and Arabs recognizing me. On campus, I get recognized by Arab students frequently, and so happily most of them are on our side — they are democracy fans, and so it’s pleasant recognition.

But we are enjoying being not recognized, because the last two years being recognized in a fascist environment as someone who is classified as a state enemy has been very unpleasant. There were incidents where people were shouting at us in the street. There was no physical violence, but you ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” There are some moments personally which get to be very difficult for you to digest.