Transcript: TIME’s Interview with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi

On Nov. 28, 2012, TIME editors sat with Egypt’s president for an exclusive interview, his first since helping to broker the Gaza cease-fire

  • Share
  • Read Later

[Note: TIME had spelled the president’s surname as “Morsy” based on his Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Southern California; his advisers in Cairo say the preferred spelling is now Morsi. Protocol required President Morsi to answer questions from TIME editors and reporters in his native Arabic, the official language of Egypt.  Instead, as a courtesy to his guests, he spoke for most of the hour in English, which he last spoke regularly three decades ago.]

TIME: You’re on the world stage now.

President Mohamed Morsi: (In English) The world stage is very difficult. It’s not easy to be on the world stage. The world is now much more difficult than it was during your revolution. It’s even more difficult. The world. More complicated, complex, difficult. It’s a spaghetti-like structure. It’s mixed up. So we need to somehow take things, easily, so we can go together, the whole world — peacefully, peacefully, hopefully, all kinds of peace. I think you know that in general people like to say that we should keep peace by all means. I’m not talking about peace by its traditional meaning. Peace of mind, peace of heart, peace of living together, socially, culturally, not only militarily.

(MORE: Should Mohamed Morsi be TIME’s Person of the Year?)

(Switching to Arabic) Thank you for your interest… a good bridge between Egypt and the U.S.

(In English) By the U.S., I mean the American people more than the authorities, politicians, etc. But the American people as I know are quite friendly, they are civilized, they have struggled, and they have given a lot of their country, to the world. It’s a different climate as we see from here but I think the media now have made things very close… [i.e., made the world a smaller place] and people are a small village, getting together.

Winds are blowing here and there and people are busy with their lifestyles but I think they are looking to see a better situation in the world during President Obama’s second [term], which is more relaxed. I want to make use of this myself, to have a very strong bridge between us, between the Middle East, Middle Eastern people, and east and west, and certain balance. So people can live feeling really that they are living peacefully, that they are settled and well established in their countries. That they are really doing the best at gaining what they expect, to live in peace, to feel democracy, freedom.

People here haven’t experienced any sort of that for more than 30 years — more. Decades living under very suppressive regime, very dictatorial… quite [distant] from the suffering. People felt they were not included in the equation of politics. You know, I’ve been suffering myself. I have seen East and West, here and there, studying history and seeing what’s going on, besides engineering of course. [Note: Morsi has a 1982 Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Southern California.] I have learned a lot from being here and there, especially in the United States, living with the people in the states, and the university, and industry, and the markets and the shops.

Of course the media then wasn’t as strong as it is now, but I [would wake up] to Good Morning America every day, Barbara Walters and her great programs. And of course,Walter Cronkite… And I haven’t forgot … the captives in Iran [during the Carter presidency]…. [And the day he left office] they released the captives, who had been held for more than a year. That was a big struggle and debate going on.

Things have been going on in a certain way between East and West, and also the South. The people in the South have also been suffering a lot from being put out of the international equation. Now we want to bring the people into international affairs, so they feel that they are living in their countries, they are free, they say, they move, they produce, they work, they gain, they lose, whatever. This is very important. This is a new period, I think, not only for Egypt or the people of the Arab Spring, but I think for the whole world. To reconsider what has been done wrong in the past and see how can we make it correct, as much as we can. It takes time. So speed is low, acceleration is high. Somehow we’re pushing in all directions, trying to say to the people of the world, and convince the governments and the leaders that we should live at peace.

Conflict does not lead to stability in the world. Cooperation, how can we do that? It’s a struggle. It’s a very, very difficult struggle. To have a new culture, international culture, respecting individual countries and people’s cultures, their local ones, but can we have an international culture? Can we do that? A culture of cooperation, a culture of  stopping war, bloodshed. Culture of real peaceful means of trade, militant actions to defend, not to attack, of using power in civilian applications, more than in militant applications. How can we do that? I think we can. It has been done earlier really, two or three centuries, back. But things have been done in certain way. Two world wars, more than 50 million killed…

I don’t like people in my country to say, “The United States is against us,” because I know the American people are different from these positions that have been taken for a long time — double standards — and you know what’s going on in the world. But now I think I’m starting a new era, based on balanced, mutual benefits relationship which should be respected from all sides. Africa. The Arab world. The Islamic world. European Union, Russia and China. There is a very, very big strong difficult competition.

That’s why I say It’s not as easy as it was. I still remember, there was a saying in the United States, when the people say we are a nation of all nations. This is an expressive expression. It tells something [in a] very short, concentrated [way]. It says: we can live together. I think the States has been successful at this to a great extent. But internationally there are other things. The evaluation says different things.

So how can we do this? Economics now are not balanced in the world. Raw materials are one part, technology and products — very advanced scientific applications — are in the other side. Taking the raw materials, producing it, selling it back, there is a very big difference in price, keep the poor poorer, make the rich richer. We want to make some sort of balance in economics, not only in politics. They are related of course. And I think socially, we cannot be identical, never. Culturally, we cannot be identical.

We can cooperate, we can integrate. As much as we can. How can we do that? I think leaders in the world have a great responsibility in this. Human beings can live together.

I remember a movie. Which one? Planet of the Apes. The old version, not the new one. There is new one. Which is different. Not so good. It’s not expressing the reality as it was the first one. But at the end, I still remember, this is the conclusion: When the big monkey, he was head of the supreme court I think — in the movie! — and there was a big scientist working for him,  cleaning things, has been chained there. And it was the planet of the apes after the destructive act of a big war, and atomic bombs and whatever in the movie. And the scientists was asking him to do something, this was 30 years ago: “Don’t forget you are a monkey.” He tells him, “Don’t ask me about this dirty work.”  What did the big ape, the monkey say? He said, “You’re human, you did it [to] yourself.” That’s the conclusion. Can we do something better for ourselves?

I saw it 30 years ago. That is the role of the art. This is the very important role of art. Gone with the Wind has been treating social problems. Five in Hell. That was the Arabic title. Five Americans working behind German lines and they were using primitive military devices. I think it was Charles Bronson or something like that. My hard disk still carries a few things!

(PHOTOS: Thousands in Cairo Protest Morsi’s Decree)

What was it like to deal with president Obama during the Gaza cease-fire?

President Obama has been very helpful, very helpful. And I can say really that his deeds coincide with his intentions. We’ve been talking together about the cease-fire, that’s very important, then we can talk about differences between Palestinians and Israelis. It’s not easy. It’s very difficult. Both sides are talking about differences. We want them to talk about similarities…. We are now doing this job as much as we can.

If we can succeed with 60-70% I consider this a big success. If we go forward, this area of the world will be better as far as peace is concerned. The stability of this area, Egypt and surroundings, is very important. That’s why we have a big challenge in Egypt. We have forces that try to drag back. This is no doubt. And also you can see that in Tunisia. You can see that in Libya. You can see that seriously in Syria, dragging situations back to whatever it was is a [goal]. We’re fighting [for this goal], not the people. And this area should have its opportunity to develop. The price of development is much, much cheaper than war. People are looking strongly to see better situations, better lives for their children, grandchildren, for their area.

It takes time. It’s a bottleneck. A bottleneck takes years. In the States it has taken years and blood, for a long time, not a short time. And Abraham Lincoln was considered a milestone, telling the people how to get together after the war, how can we see our country in a better situation. [He’d] been given a chance, and I think he succeeded to a great extent. But suffering has created after it stability. Or insisting on stability when the suffering is more than after the birth, people will realize that they should stick with what they have achieved.

So when the world is looking to itself to see what’s going on, I think they’re now realizing, people in the world are realizing that freedom is better than dictatorship. Democracy is better for the whole world. if there is a spot where you have dictatorship, where people are not free, people are not satisfied, they do not find food and shelter, they are under the poverty level, this is a dangerous spot for the whole world, because those people will move, and they will move to different places. They will be carrying bad feelings towards others. They may behave badly. They may behave wrongly. So how can we assure development for Africa, for the Middle East, for countries in this area? Egyptians are ready. We have resources. We have potential. We have very unique distinguished [population], so to speak. We are ready. We are in the road. We are trying to push and go. It’s not easy. The momentum that is needed for this pushing should be very high.

Our ship has been somehow put on the sand, not on the water, so we have to drag it forward, not backward, to real clean water. It’s not easy. To keep good relationship with the world, to help development, to make integration between development and international  affairs and investment and economics, to spread over the good intentions and acts, also. To have mutual and balanced relationships with others. To take hatred from the hearts that has been built up. People have been seeing all the time: bloodshed in Palestine and different places, Iraq and Afghanistan, now in Yemen, Libya. They feel bad. [Trials that divide] North and South, East and West, Darfur, whatever. [Instability] in the Gulf. Threatening Iran and its role in international politics and the world.  The fight around the fields of oils. These all are things that are mixed up together, that needs stronger leadership, with a vision… who should take the lead and act.

It’s time [for] action. Principles are agreed upon. But application of the principles? No one can debate about the principles. Everyone talks about peace, everyone talks about development, everyone talks about independence of different countries. The United Nations was built in 1947. Before that was the League of Nations. But actually, on the ground, the action is weak. I think we are more than 190 states. Now the Palestinians are trying to have a foot on the ground. And we help them. That doesn’t mean they will be capable to [stage] attacks on others. I don’t think they have this capability. The maximum they have is to resist, is to say what [do] we have to lose?

(MORE: Egypt’s Morsi: Has He Started Something He Can’t Finish?)

Is the Muslim Brotherhood in fact a democratic organization?

By definition, yes. It’s a big yes, sure. This stems from belief, Islamic belief, freedom for everyone, freedom of belief, freedom of expressing their opinions, equality, stability, human rights. ERA. It’s not only in America. Equal Rights Amendment. Everyone. This is a belief, this is coming from our belief: democracy, equal chance. But also responsibility. Law, constitution.

Egypt is an ancient country; it’s an ancient state also. The constitution in Egypt is quite old. 1923. [The] first one. And we move toward more stable positions. We cannot get stable unless we have freedom, democracy, rights for everyone, equal rights, equal rights for men and women, for Muslim, Christians, for whoever is carrying any opinion The common thing, the base line, the reference is, the nationality, the citizenship–Egyptian, that’s all. And the law is for everyone.

We have had big violations. So what the Muslim Brotherhood has all the time trying to have settled is an institutional, constitutional state, so if we have the opportunity, I think It’s for the benefit of the Egyptians, the benefit of everyone in Egypt, Christians and Muslims and the benefit to the Muslim Brotherhood and others is to have an institutional, constitutional state.

(Switching to Arabic) I’m very keen on having true freedom of expression. True freedom of faith. And free practice of religious faith. I am keen and I will always be keen on exchange [transfer] of power. I’m an elected president. My chief responsibility is to maintain the national ship to go through this transitional period. This is not easy. Egyptians are determined to [move] forward within the path of freedom and democracy, and this is what I see. Justice and social justice. Development with its comprehensive overall meaning. Human development. Industrial productive development. Scholarly research. Political development. International relations balanced with all different parties, East and West. We are keen in Egypt and I am personally keen right now on maintaining freedom, democracy, justice and social justice. The MB do not say anything different from that.

Last week’s decree created a lot of controversy. If you had it to do over again, would you handle it differently? Revise it?

(In English) Oh no, I don’t see the situation this way. What I can see now is the Egyptians are free. They are raising their voices when they are opposing the president, and when they are opposing what’s going on. And this is very important. It’s their right to express, and to raise their voices and express their feelings and attitudes. But It’s my responsibility, I see things more than they do. I think you have seen the most recent opinion surveys. I think more than 80, around 90% of the people in Egypt are — according to these opinion measures — they are with what I have done. It’s not against the people, It’s with the people, coincides with the benefits. There is some difference between what’s happening now in expressing the opinions of the people and what happened in January 2011 [during the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak]. There is now some violence that we haven’t seen before, which constitutes something bad going on.

This is my responsibility, but in general the expression is okay. But there is some violence. Also there is some relation shared between these violent acts and some symbols of the previous regime. I think you and I — I have more information — but you can feel that there is something like this in this matter.

I’m not worried. I’m concerned. And I’m sure Egyptians will pass through this. We’re  learning. We’re learning how to be free. We haven’t seen this before. We’re learning how to debate. How to differ. How to be majority and minority. It’s not minority but majority and opposition. We don’t have a parliament now.  That’s too bad. We don’t have a constitution now. That [situation is] urging us, pushing people, to finish this but in some sort of stable climate and situation so people can go and vote on the constitution. We want to finish it.

…I’m president of all of [the people], to see what’s going on on our borders, to see what’s going on in the south, to see what’s going on in the Mediterranean Sea, to see what’s going on in Sinai, to see what’s going on in Tahrir, to see what’s going on in different places. This is a big responsibility now. It’s a challenge. And It’s not threatening but It’s important. I have to look into it and see how can we can manage to pass through this bottleneck. It’s a long bottleneck,  it has been for two years or more. It may take some time more. But I am sure we will be moving toward having a constitution. This is very important. If we had a constitution, then all of what I have said or done last week, will stop [he wipes his hands].

(MORE: After the Power-Play in Egypt: Morsy and the Islamists Vs. Everyone Else)

We will have a constitution, which represents the people well. Now we don’t have a parliament, so I am responsible [he raises a finger in the air] for issuing laws, which is a big responsibility, serious one. I don’t like to use it unless I do have to. If I don’t, if I am not obligated, then I don’t like to use it. We are moving, slowly, [with] difficultly, but also successfully. So when we see people expressing themselves, [in] large numbers, good. This is a positive sign. But violence is not.  So whoever is trying and doesn’t observe the benefit of the majority of the people and trying to rock the boat, then it’s the responsibility of the president, of the government to see what’s going on. Rocking the boat is not to the benefit of anyone. To the contrary It’s against.

We have a situation, a delicate one. We’re moving, we’re learning. We have freedom, a new climate, a new environment. People are free. They’re expressing. They’re moving. No one is stopping them but violence is not allowed, shouldn’t be allowed. It’s against the law. It’s against the benefit of the people. If we keep telling things peacefully this is good. This is one of the advantages of the Egyptian revolution. Blood in a minimum level, and It’s still like this.

We guard [the people]. We’re looking. We measure. We see. We allow the people to move. They are free. But the responsibility is to have them safe, to guard them. To give them the opportunity to express but without violence on the borders of Meydane Tahrir. [Tahrir Square]  It started before even I issued the constitutional [decree]; it has started for more than eight days or something.  It’s some sort of … misunderstanding from a few. But it’s okay. It will pass. It will go, and I think it will be registered as a good spot in our movement in history in the last two years. I think we had big things like this several times. And during the presidential election you see what was happening. It was a great big unusual conflict between old powers and the new acts of the revolution.

It’s a first experiment, it’s a first experience for us in our history. So what do you expect? Things to go very smooth? No. It has to be a rough, at least. Not violent, but rough. So, we have enough patience. Hopefully, quickly we’ll pass quickly to the constitution. It will be as I understand  from the constitution committee, a month or something. I say two months. I give them some time to have a social and society debate around the articles, about 230 articles, they are differing around about 15 of them. It takes some time. They’re doing their best. I’m trying to make conversations with all political parties, as much as we can. The church, other blocs.

So Egypt is moving. We have a new Egypt now. A civil state, not theocratic, not militant. A real civil constitutional state, that is going. There is some resistance. There are difficulties, obstacles, many things we can see, but it’s moving. Egyptians will succeed, Inshallah.

This year, 2012, was a big year, a lot happened. Many hail you as a statesman, others warn you’re a new pharaoh.

New pharaoh? [Laughs from the gut.] Can I be? I’ve been suffering, I’ve been suffering, personally!

(Switching to Arabic) Political work for me started a very long time ago. 1986. I was nominated for parliamentary elections in 1995 and these elections were false. Then I was nominated in the year 2000 for parliamentary elections, and I became a member of parliament 2000-2005. And I was also nominated for 2005 and again the elections were forged. I have been responsible for political work at the Muslim Brotherhood for ten years. I come from within Egyptian society. I know the entire society, the people and what they suffer from. I originally come from [Sharkia] governate, east Cairo, but I’m a graduate from Cairo University. And I received my Ph.D. from the US.

I went to prison, [he touches his tie] and I was the chair of the materials department at university when I went to prison. The reason why I went to prison is that I was defending the judiciary and Egyptian judges. I know perfectly what it means to have separation between the three powers, executive power, legislative power and the judiciary. This is the main concept about a state based on institutions. The people are the original source of power. The president represents the executive power, and the president is elected by the people. And I’m keen that the people would have complete freedom of elections, and I’m keen on exchange [transfer] of power through free elections.  I went all over the world, whether in the U.S., in Europe or the East, and I know how things are run. I know about technology, about research, scientific applications, culture, civilization, differences between nations of the world, the nature of history. And I’m a scholar of Islamic… (Switches back to English)  I’m not a scholar, I’m talking about Islam. I know what Islam is, really. I know what Islam is, the meaning of  comprehensive Islam, the meaning of peaceful acts and how Islam can be applied in the life of people. The misinterpretation of some of the Islamic figures also is not appropriate. I know what’s the real target and meaning and applications of Islam. I’ve been performing , practicing it for a long time, in my life, in society, in the parliament and now for how many months I’ve been in the presidential [palace]? It’s five months.  Not 30 years [the length of Mubarak’s rule]. It’s five months.

It’s not two years, not 30 years, It’s five months. It’s five months after a big destruction, corruption, bad deeds. People have always been marginalized.  I’ve been part of the revolution. And from the Muslim Brotherhood I was in charge of the action in Tahrir square, representing the Muslim Brotherhood during the revolution. Things are clear and I’m very happy to have you in this visit. Final question?

I hope, when we have a constitution, what I have issued will stop immediately, and l have others sharing this with you, we’ll have a parliament, we’ll have elections. So It’s two months.

Is there enough of a buy-in from the society at large on the constitution?

They will vote on it. Now they are sharing their opinions in a committee, a legal committee, elected on. When they finish, then I will take it and put it in debate in society for two weeks or something, then people will vote. It’s their complete responsibility. I can say my opinion.

But what about the political environment around it? Don’t events of the last week indicate a society pulling part rather than coming together around it?

No, It’s not pulling apart. It’s not pulling apart. It’s a majority and opposition. I can see it very clear. But the opposition is not like it was before. They have the right, they do what they say. If you have 25% or 30% opposition, that’s a big number. We have [a population of] 90 million.

So expressing, as I said, peacefully expressing opposition is very healthy. It’s very important. But not violently. That’s what’s different. And violence is related to, as I said, the old regime, some way or another. They try to stop, to drag.

2012 is the best year for the Egyptians in their lives, in their history. We’ve had the first presidential real elections, in our history. It was not easy. It’s not easy now. We’re suffering, but always a new birth is not easy, especially if it’s the birth of a nation. And a big nation like this, an ancient one, a strong one, and it has very deep roots in history. We have scientist, we have politicians, we have opposition, we have farmers, we have scholars, we have children, It’s…it’s an infinite variety.

It’s not easy to lead it now, but It’s okay. We are capable of doing it. Inshallah we’ll do it successfully, peacefully. To us and to the whole region and to the whole world. We came with a mission of peace. We are not against individuals or countries or states, we wan to live in peace with others, but real peace, comprehensive peace.

MORE: Top 10 Famous Protest Plazas