Amr Darrag is a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a professor of engineering at Cairo University. He served as the head of the foreign relations committee of the Freedom and Justice Party and as secretary general of the constituent assembly that drafted Egypt’s new constitution in 2012. He was recently appointed Minister of Planning and International Cooperation.
UL: The Shura Council is currently discussing a new NGO law that would regulate foreign NGOs and foreign funding to Egyptian NGOs. The draft stipulates significant government oversight of all sorts of activities. Why are you pushing this law forward right now when there is so much opposition from the international community and Egyptian civil society?
AD: First of all, we're not pushing it. It's not approved yet, and it's still being discussed. The preparatory work was partly done in the ministry of justice and partly in the ministry of social development, and then it went to parliament. We definitely don't like many aspects of the draft, so our representatives are going to change it. We would like to see an empowered civil society that is not controlled by any governmental organization.
UL: But this would involve changing the law 180 degrees.
AD: It will change. What's the problem? It can even be rejected overall, and we’ll ask the government to prepare another. There's ample time to do that. We're not in a rush to issue the law.
UL: How would you supervise foreign funding?
AD: On the one hand we'd like to empower civil society and allow innocent funding for different activities to get through. On the other hand we don't want the country to be open to financing that supports something that does not benefit the country. There has to be some sort of monitoring of foreign funding in order to make sure it is compatible with the national agenda.
UL: Can you give an example of foreign funding for some activity or group that would be against the interest of Egypt?
AD: [If] someone is financing a group of demonstrators that is using violence by throwing Molotov cocktails, this is something that must be illegal. You cannot say that [the group] is an NGO and that funding has to be free.
UL: The IMF wants subsidy reform and tax reform in order for its loan to Egypt to become a reality. Is this why the negotiations keep getting postponed?
AD: When you look at the subsidies that the IMF wants to remove, part of them are not directed to the right people, so these can definitely be taken out or restructured. But subsidies that are helping poor people to manage their lives…they were suffering before and now after the revolution; you cannot have them suffer more because this is what the IMF wants.
UL: Some of your critics say you’re postponing taking these painful measures until after the elections.
AD: The argument is weak, as these will not be the last elections. If we take these steps [after the elections] and they are unpopular they will affect other, future elections. It was the IMF that said that it prefers to sign the agreement after the elections. But discussions are occurring now because the elections have been postponed.
UL: The IMF wants to see greater political consensus around the measures.
AD: You need to have a general acceptance of the measures, and it’s definitely better to have them implemented by a government that is elected by the people. But to wait until you have a political consensus is a dream. It doesn’t happen anywhere. You cannot have agreement from all parties on a political agenda.
UL: What role do you see Egypt playing in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?
AD: Our position is to accept anything that the Palestinians accept. And by "the Palestinians" we mean all Palestinians. The policy of the previous regime was to take the side of only half of the Palestinian people‑‑Fatah and not Hamas. In order to have a sustainable deal you must have all the major players involved. Our policy is to maintain equal distance between the two factions and to facilitate reconciliation.
UL: What about Egypt's policy toward Gaza? The Brotherhood and much of the Egyptian political spectrum was critical of the Mubarak regime's participation in the blockade on Gaza. But recently Egypt under President Morsi flooded the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza.
AD: Though the tunnels were useful to penetrate the blockade, the strategy is to end the blockade and to have legal goods going back and forth without any problem. Once we have that there is no need for the tunnels. And the tunnels are being used for things that hurt us, such as the smuggling of [subsidized Egyptian] oil supplies that are badly needed in the country. We also don't want weapons moving through the tunnels. This is why the policy of our government and the army is to close the tunnels and control the border.
UL: For the Freedom and Justice (FJP) Party, opening the Rafah crossing to more goods and trade is dependent on Palestinian reconciliation but not Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. This is a big difference, as the policy under Mubarak dictated that there had to be an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
AD: Israel pulled out of Gaza. So this is Palestinian land. The problem is that there is a dispute about the legitimacy of the government in Gaza. So if there is an agreement that Fatah and Hamas monitor the Rafah crossing, this is an Egyptian-Palestinian agreement. Israel doesn't have anything to do with that.
UL: How do you see the Egyptian-American relationship being different now than it was before the revolution and before the FJP came to power?
AD: The relationship between the United States and Egypt under Mubarak was a one-way relationship. Mubarak did what the United States wanted. We are interested in having a good and balanced relationship with the United States, which means fostering mutual interests and mutual respect. We do not want one party to dominate this relationship.
UL: One of the latest diplomatic incidents with the United States was the heated exchange between the U.S. Embassy’s and the presidency's Twitter feeds regarding the Bassem Youssef case.
AD: Even the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy realized that what they had done was wrong. It was not diplomatically proper.
UL: Because it was insulting to the president?
AD: Because it was interfering in a domestic issue. [The Jon Stewart clip mocking Morsi] is on YouTube; let the people see it. Why would the U.S. Embassy, as the diplomatic representative of the U.S. government, promote that? This is what we didn't like, that the Embassy acted as an Egyptian activist.
UL: What is your view of the case? Many are concerned that it does not bode well for freedom of expression.
AD: Was Bassem Youssef interrogated by the president or by the government, or was his interrogation part of a legal process? Someone, according to the legal system, went to the judiciary and said, “I see that this is offensive and this is against the law.” The legal system has to evaluate the complaint and see if it is against or compatible with the law.
UL: But this is also similar to what was done under the Mubarak regime, when supposedly independent lawyers who had no connection to the government would launch a case that a prosecutor who had been appointed by the president would then take up.
AD: Yes, you are right. But I'll tell you the difference. The difference is that at that time the judiciary system was totally part of the Mubarak regime. Right now the judiciary system is totally against the regime.
UL: But the public prosecutor was appointed by the president. He's the one who decided to move forward with the charges.
AD: Just because someone is appointed by the president doesn’t mean that he is doing what the president tells him to do.
UL: You are saying that the individuals who brought this case, if we looked into their background, would turn out to not be Islamists or linked to the Brotherhood or the FJP?
AD: I'm not saying that. Islamists have the right to be offended by someone. I could have been that person. Don't you think I have the right to complain if I see something as offensive? But I would follow the legal process. It’s not like during the Mubarak era, because the judiciary is not always on one side. There are examples that prove my point, starting with the dissolution of parliament on purely political grounds.
UL: The FJP recently issued a strong dissent to a statement by the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Some members of the party also question the international human rights conventions to which Egypt is signatory, saying that these rights should be shaped by the commitment to Shariah found in the constitution.
AD: First of all, the FJP did not issue the statement. It was the Muslim Brotherhood, and that was based on a misunderstanding. There was the perception in the Brotherhood that the document was final, whereas it was just a draft. Someone got carried away and issued the statement.
UL: But the criticism is still there on the website.
AD: Well, you should go to the Muslim Brotherhood and ask them. As a party we are totally against that statement.
UL: But aren't you also the Muslim Brotherhood?
AD: No, we're not. We're an independent organization. You have to realize this.
UL: Yet this kind of a statement is not unique to the Brotherhood. Senior members of the FJP have made similar statements, objecting to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). They have said that practicing female genital mutilation (FGM) is a personal choice.
AD: There are definitely issues in the international conventions that are in contradiction to Islamic Shariah. And we only sign agreements provided that they do not violate the principles of Shariah in any way. You do not like anybody to impose his or her values on your society, and we do not like anybody to impose his or her values on our society. This is something that the international community has to understand and accept.
UL: But FGM is not part of Shariah, and Shariah is open to interpretation. For example, the Egyptian government established a marriage age of 18, and there are those who argue that it should be lowered according to Shariah.
AD: People have opinions. There are so many extreme opinions everywhere in the world. At the end of the day you look at the legal system.
This interview has been condensed and edited from the original transcript.