Egypt and the Struggle for Democracy: An Interview with Dr. Wael Haddara

By Zacharia al Khatib, 1L

Dr. Wael HaddaraDr. Wael Haddara is the Medical Director of the Medical-Surgical Intensive Care Unit at the University Hospital in London, Ontario. In 2012-2013, he served as a senior advisor to President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. After the military coup of 2013, Dr. Haddara returned to Canada.

Major news networks, including the New York Times, have sought Dr. Haddara’s commentary and insight into the political and social circumstances of the Middle East. He generously agreed to be inter- viewed about his experiences for Rights Review.

How did you find yourself working as an aide to President Morsi?

It was quite accidental and came about mainly because I knew two individuals – Dr. Esam Haddad and Khaled Al-Qazzaz, a University of Toronto alumnus. Khaled had recently completed graduate training at U of T. During his time he had become involved in public outreach and bridge building between the Muslim community and wider society. Post-9/11, a number of us had the same desire to reach out, and so we took media training and became point people for media contacts in our respective communities. Khaled and I both played that role.

Khaled’s time in Canada was transformative. He was always a passionate person, but he brought a newly discovered passion for education and societal development back with him to Egypt. Returning to Egypt, he changed careers from engineering to education and opened a school with his wife.

When the revolution broke in January 2011, Khaled was in Tahrir Square from day one. When the Muslim Brotherhood formed a new political party open to all Egyptians, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Khaled was recommended as a media liaison. He eventually was chosen as the No. 2 man in the Foreign Relations Committee. Mohammad Morsi was the Chair of the FJP at the time, and when he became the FJP’s nominee for President, Khaled moved to his presidential campaign. I had gone back to Egypt at the time of the elections, and through Khaled was asked if I would advise the President on communication and media. We met, hit it off, and when he won the election he asked me to join him as part of the presidential team.

It was not something I had ever planned for. I’m politically aware and keep up with local, national and international politics, but I had never envisioned myself in that realm. It was, however, an incredible chance to do outreach and narrow the understanding gap between the East and West.

Which accomplishment of the elected Egyptian government are you most proud?

Hands down, it is that we were able to sustain an atmosphere of openness and freedom during our year in office. The first act President Morsi took was to abolish pre-trial detention for journalists. In Egypt, prior to President Morsi, a journalist could (and often would) be jailed while awaiting investigation and trial whereas non-journalists could not be jailed until convicted. President Morsi abolished this intimidation mechanism and I was one of the people who helped convince him this was a key move for Egypt early on.

The President’s response to Israel’s attack on Gaza in the fall of 2012 was also something of which we were all proud. I was not involved in those negotiations, but it was a hectic period with then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shuttling back and forth between the Egyptian, Palestinian and Israeli sides. The President demonstrated, for possibly the first time in recent memory, principled but pragmatic Egyptian foreign policy.

Many Canadians are unfamiliar with the current state of affairs in Egypt, and why it might be important here. What would you say in response?

There is an old saying that “if you have not seen Egypt, you have not seen the world.” For various historic, social, geopolitical and cultural reasons, Egypt has the capacity to inspire millions of people around the world. Egypt is the seat of the Coptic Church, the oldest Church in Christendom. It is also the seat of Al-Azhar, the oldest Islamic institution of learning.

Historically, as Egypt goes, so does the Middle East and also the broader Islamic world. Because of the decline in Egypt’s standing over the past 50 years, her regional and global influence diminished. But all it took was the revolution of 2011 to see hope alive again in so many people within, and well beyond, Egypt’s borders. During my travels in 2011-2013, it became normal for people in airports from Kuala Lumpur to Istanbul to Paris to tell me that their hopes are pinned on Egypt for a new renaissance in the Middle East.

With its vast population (close to 100 million people) and natural resources, Egypt is also an important economic player. It is set to become one of the key economies in the upcoming years. It can be a true link and bridge between East and West.

We repeat the mantra ceaselessly that we now live in a global village. It is more than a mantra: it is a reality. Egypt is central to our village. If Egyptians can develop a model of democratic, inclusive governance that is true to their culture and faith, Egypt can be an important stabilizer in a world that needs stability and peace. Alternately, if the Egyptian experiment in “government by the people” perishes, then Egypt will become a huge source of instability. And in a global village, instability spreads quickly. So there is a lot more at stake here than just what’s happening in one country in the Middle East.

What kind of trajectory do you foresee for this situation (or the Middle East more broadly), in light of what is happening in Egypt?

Unfortunately, I think that the most likely trajectory for the Middle East is more conflict. We have two large groupings - one represented by old power structures and their beneficiaries (oligarchs, regional and international businesses) and the other represented by ordinary citizens in groups like the FJP, labour unions, and student groups.

For the past 70+ years, most people in the Middle East were content to allow the older power structures to dominate life - social, political, economic and cultural - in the hope that things would improve eventually. These authorities promised change through nationalism, pan-Arabism, socialism and various ideologies.

Here in 2015, people have realized the total failure of those regimes to bring about a better life for their citizens and people are fed up. They want freedom and dignity, as well as better living conditions and economic opportunities.

What happened in Egypt was not only the overthrow of a democratically elected president but a full counter-revolution that brought back an even more repressive statist system. This time around, the people are not taking it lying down. We see this struggle in different forms across almost all countries of the Middle East, and so we will either have a South Africa moment - the emergence of a Frederik Willem de Klerk who can negotiate the end of repression and convince the old guard to share power, or we will see more violent confrontation erupt.

If you could give Canadian law students some advice, what would it be?

Pay close attention to the Middle East. Lots will happen there in the next few years and the Middle East will continue to have an important effect on the rest of the world.

The other piece of advice is to develop a near-sacred respect for the rule of law. This principle should be cherished and guarded because it is the only true guarantee of a free society. Not all laws are correct, or even moral. But the rule of law is the only way through which a just society can be organized. 

Photo: Dr. Wael Haddara, left, in a 2013 meeting with the Honourable Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia (Credit: Dr. Wael Haddara)