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Al-Sayyad: “transitional constitution will calm down the polarised climate” - Daily News Egypt

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Al-Sayyad: “transitional constitution will calm down the polarised climate”

Presidential adviser Ayman Al-Sayyad speaks to DNE

Presidential adviser Ayman Al-Sayyad speaks to Daily News Egypt Hassan Ibrahim / DNE
Presidential adviser Ayman Al-Sayyad speaks to Daily News Egypt
Hassan Ibrahim / DNE

Presidential adviser Ayman Al-Sayyad meets with Daily News Egypt to discuss President Mohamed Morsy’s advisory board, the upcoming constitution and views on regulating media in Egypt. Al-Sayyad, who is currently the editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine Wijhat Nazar, believes the current polarised political climate is in dire need of a transitional constitution. After turning down the position of the minister of media, Al-Sayyad confirms that his advisory role fits his desire to express his opinion. He says that an adviser who does not oppose is useless.

How would you comment on the draft constitution?

The more crucial question is will we in fact have a new constitution? Will this climate, in its current form and its social polarisation permit the emergence of a constitution that deserves to be defined as a constitution, or not? The current draft does not even represent the final one, as such, it cannot be relied upon.

There are plenty of wording varieties present in this draft, with respect to all subjects, but that does not exceed a mere attempt by the drafting committee to achieve a status of mutual accord among the extremely opposed groups within the Constituent Assembly. This does not allow the emergence of a homogenous and integrated text.

Law is constructed in the same way as buildings; there should be harmony between the building’s parts. Every brick sets the foundation for the following one. When every engineer is left to construct a certain wall on his own, in most cases, the end product will be an unstable structure. What is currently happening is very similar to this situation. The case is not that of media clauses, but that of the entire constitution.

What is your opinion regarding the clauses relating to media freedoms in the constitution draft? In other words, will the new constitution guarantee media freedom?

Regarding the clauses dealing specifically with the media, there are certain provisions that, if taken out of their general context, could be described as good provisions. However the devil is in the details. When for example, we talk in the constitution about authorities in charge of regulating the media, this sounds alright from a theoretical point of view. However, seen from the practical angle, I greatly fear the details. If we compare between the constitution’s provisions, and the existing provisions of the law, there are no big differences with regards to the question of such authorities.

We have to realise that this is a transitional period that requires transitional and not general provisions. It would be a fatal mistake to plan or draft at the current stage, as if we were in a stable society. We are not a culturally stable society, and not even a politically stable one. Nevertheless, there is a single clause that is very good. It will be considered the only clause, in the event that the draft is approved, that marches in the direction that I am preaching; the freedom of issuing newspapers by notification. This is a good clause; however the real problem now surrounds the financials associated with newspaper permits.

The issue is not whether or not there should be media freedom requiring regulation; but the mechanism by which the media-regulating authority will be formed. Second, which reference will such authority or committee rely upon in determining what is right from what is wrong? In all societies, there is a well-known space defining what is socially and morally acceptable. This space is defined by definite limits from one society to the other.

When clauses address issues such as respecting social values; what are social values? Who is this person who is able, right now, to define social values? Now, you can walk down the street unable to find agreement on anything you see in the same street. You will hear different comments as “right” or “wrong” on the same thing. You not find any consensus on any particular thing, whatsoever. I know that these are not times for elevation, honestly speaking, but times of absolute freedom, until this society crystallises its own culture.

What are your expectations in general regarding the constitutional referendum?

This is the important part. I was misquoted stating the 60 per cent majority as if I brought the results from the “control panel”. What I said was that we are now experiencing a situation of extreme polarisation. It is not even as one between a current representing political Islam and another current representing everything else, as many perceive it to be the case. We all know that among Salafis, some did actually issue a statement calling for objection against this constitution. Why? Because this constitution is secular. This discourse even accuses Islamists within the Constituent Assembly of being afraid of their secular counterparts and thus agreed to the constitution.

The situation will not be a repetition of that of 19 March 2011. In the 19 March referendum, some succeeded in portraying it though a “yes” was for Islamists and a “no” was for everyone else. The matter is different this time, since there is disagreement on the constitution even within the ranks of Islamists. Moreover, even the equation of Islamists versus others has changed.

What I said was that it is not suitable to have a constitution that might not enjoy the agreement of more than 60 per cent. If something like this is to happen we shall be in a real problem. A constitution that lacks an agreement exceeding 80 per cent is indeed problematic. The current climate does not allow such broad consensus.

I am fearful that the constitution, if endorsed in these current circumstances, will bring about more polarisation. The solution? We need to reduce this tension and polarisation. I believe, but I am not confident, that in the event where we all agree that this constitution will be only transitional, the polarised climate will calm down.

To what extent do you consider that the constitution will be temporary or transitional?

If intentions are to be genuine, everyone can agree on this. We only need an agreement stating that the constitution being drafted is only temporary, such that an amendment mechanism is included in one of the clauses. We do not want people to consider this as a matter of life and death. Those who are calling for Shari’a in the constitution do consider it a life or death matter. They consider the word “principles” of Shari’a as not acceptable. They do not see that in the event that a constitution has been approved while not agreeing completely with it, the possibility will be still there to amend it. By this the tension will ease.

Being an adviser to President Morsy, how far does the president explore pressing issues with his advisory board?

The president sits with all of us and discusses all issues with us. Everyone of us has his own area of expertise however, to which his attention is more directed, naturally. Regarding the media, to make the question clear; there is an extremely big difference between the term media adviser and my current role. The other thing is that this authority should be setting policies for democratic transition.

Media is one of the major issues in the democratic transition and in the transitional justice portfolio. When the formation was announced on 27 August, I clearly requested that the role of this authority should be limited to a single mission: the verification of the completion procedures as to democratic transition. This is what is termed as the five factors of transitional justice. There is political principle for transition, when societies evolve from totalitarianism to democracy. Five conditions are set for this transition to be accomplished.

Among these condition is institutional reform. Institutional reform involves three institutions; the media, the judiciary and the security apparatus. Every institution is assigned a reformation mechanism. If these five elements are not tackled, the regime will not change. For this reason I usually raise this point, as I did following the incident of Taqadum Al-Khatib, when I questioned whether or not the regime changed. People do not understand that the regime is not the president.

How would you elaborate on the consultations you offer for President Morsy?

The consultations I stated in this field are as follows: do we have to found this media regulation authority or not and who is to be on its board? Only that. All of this falls within the state’s structure, where the president is not the sole decision maker. On the basis that the construction of the new republic exhibits some activity and lobbying, these statements are made within such context.

I am an adviser for the president, in general, and not a media adviser. The job description, as per the definition, states that we do not possess the authority of decision makers. We are involved in the decision making process in consultancy, nothing more.

The president meets with all of us or with a part of us, and discusses a certain topic or a variety of topics. Until now, what I have done does not relate to media, apart from the issue of the detainment of journalists. At the very beginning, the problem that happened with the judiciary regarding the restoration of the People’s Assembly was the main issue.

A variety of other issues have been also discussed since then, starting with corruption and continuing to relations with Gaza and the Syrian crisis. However, the decision making authority is the president. He can either follow the advice, or not.

Does Morsy usually take your advice?

In some cases he does, however, not every decision taken by the president includes our advice input. There are numerous decisions that we were not aware of apart from newspapers. For example, the case of the prosecutor general.

Can you give an example where the president followed your advice or recommendation?

A typical example of this was the issue of the journalists held on remand. I had a precise and specific opinion in that regard, especially after the issue with Al-Dostour editor-in-chief. I was all for the entire cancellation of this clause. What happened at least that the clause was amended; stating that detaining journalists [pending defamation charges] is not permissible. The detainment of journalists was cancelled a long time ago, except with regards to the provision of Clause 179. What President Morsy did was the cancellation of the detainment of journalists, even under this clause.

There is a provisions stated in Clause 179 of the Penal Code which penalises insulting the President of the Republic. I was all for cancelling this clause too. The president should have the same rights as any other citizen. The presence of a legal provision penalising insulting the president contradicts democracy.

Who do you think the president relies on for presidential decrees?

The president has numerous information sources. He is close to the opinions of his aides, advisers and the vice-president. The orientation of his ruling political party is also a factor influencing his decisions. This is natural. Some are questioning the influence of the president’s party on his decision. I do not have information, but there should be some influence by the party on the president’s decision.

Sources of information that the president is more inclined towards differs according to the issue. In issues regarding freedom of expression and journalism, I believe that presidential advisers have major influence. Maybe due to issues closely linked with litigation, and due to the fact that the vice-president belongs to the legal authority, making his opinion of relatively more weight. For issues related to socio-political balance, I believe that the dominant political party holds the major weight. For issues pertaining to national security, surely the reports generated by the security apparatus have a distinguished weight.

There certainly are various sources of information and opinions, do not undermine this. Sovereign institutions provide facts, while the advisory board provides opinions, not decisions. The cabinet also participates in decision making, which is finally taken by the president. The norm is that the president issues his decision based upon a set of inputs.

I am not concerned with influencing the decisions of the president, as much as I am concerned with the decision itself. I could either agree or disagree with the decision itself. I am not interested at all to know who convinced the president to take such a decision. The most important decision that was taken on 12 August, announcing the return of the armed forces to its barracks. What were the factors influencing the president to take such a decision in that particular timing? This is a big question.

It is believed that to a great extent, the general bureau guide (the Murshid), the Muslim Brotherhood, and the FJP were the ones behind this decision in particular, and most decisions in general.

If we were to suppose, for the sake of the argument, that this particular decision stemmed from the Murshid, what matters is that it was a good decision.

Are there regular meetings between the advisory board and President Morsy?

There are meetings, albeit not on a regular basis. When the president has something to discuss with us, we are invited to attend a meeting, where the president actively listens, and present with an absolute transparency. I wish that the rest of the state’s institution would get this level of transparency. The president does not hide anything from us at all, no matter what secrecy or sensitivity it involves. He answers all questions.

You earlier rejected the position of minister of media, why did you accept being a member of the president’s advisory board?

This was due to the fact that the minister is part of the executive authority. Professionally speaking, this implies that I abide by the policy of the executive authority, even if I disagree with it. I believe that the asset of any opinion-owner is his opinion. In this sense, my credit is independence of opinion, which I must safeguard. This independence does not exist in the case of an executive employee, but exists in the case of the adviser.

If the adviser does not oppose, he is useless. The adviser should be honest in his advice. Outside of this post, I write, speak and express my opinion. This opinion might either make an influence or not. Usually, opinions make an influence cumulatively. At the end ideas are formed within the society as a result of the opinion accumulation.

How do you see the future of media and national press?

When we speak about the institutional reform of the media, we are dealing with extremely big questions, one of which is this one. What is the future of national press under a regime built upon transition of authority? Will the ownership status quo as to national newspaper continue as is? Who holds the right to appoint editors-in-chief and CEO’s of newspapers? Who spends on this losing press?

The question of national newspapers ownership requires an answer. In my opinion, in a society built upon transition of power, there should not be a state-owned press. How will the state practice this ownership? It will exert it through some authorities, which maybe today regarded part of a certain political orientation, and tomorrow it might be a part of another political view. It is abnormal that the editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram newspaper is today a Muslim Brotherhood member and tomorrow a communist.

Media is not done in this way anywhere. As such, there is no solution to this situation apart from transferring the ownership of such institutions to their own employees through shares. It cannot be that unprofitable institutions demand the state pay the monthly wages of their employees.

Regarding private press, what are the legal provisions that need to exist in order to guarantee the balance between the ownership financials, for example the owner’s right to generate profit and at the same time the right of the journalist to undertake his job professionally?

Meanwhile, what governs the relation between ownership and editing? What is the relation between senior management and editing? What is the relation between private press and the state? Will monopoly be allowed or not? Is it imaginable that we are going to see another Rupert Murdoch, owning a large quantity of newspapers and channels? All these questions are waiting to be answered. The same issue also involves satellite media. Satellite channels get their permits from the General Investment Authority, a completely unacceptable situation.

There should be a mechanism of answering such questions, meaning that there should be committees dedicated to the discussion of these topics. The press is not owned by journalists and freedom of journalism is not a right for the journalists as people might believe. It is the right of the entire society.

Being a prominent editor-in-chief yourself, how would you comment on the incident of dismissing the editor-in-chief of Al-Gomhuria newspaper, Gamal Abdul-Rahim?

This should not have happened at all. Even Safwat Al-Sharif, when he was the head of the Shura Council, did not dare to take a similar decision. The false news report published in Al-Gomhuria was not the first in the history of Egyptian press. Egyptian press transmits false news all the time.

Was there any influence from the presidency in this particular issue?

I do not have any information, and I am only stating my viewpoint. This decision contradicts the provisions of the law on the syndicate of journalists. The decision to dismiss the editor-in-chief of the newspaper does not exist under any law.

Do you see an absolutely free media under Morsy’s presidency?

If your question is regarding the current situation, then media does enjoy complete freedom. You see absolute freedom in the sense that newspapers such as Al-Fajr and Al-Dostour say whatever they wish.

However, I took a stance against the detainment of that journalist, until he was released. I also took a stance with Al-Gomhuria’s editor-in-chief. I even stood with the controversial Al Fara’een channel, despite their having dedicated an entire episode to insulting me. I am not confident this current freedom will last however. Why? Because there is widespread discontent with the current media performance.

Some fail to understand the reason why some news might be incorrectly reported. Some do not understand that the media is the offspring of its society, simply. The media present in a society that speaks with classical Arabic, will also use classical Arabic. The society that uses insults will end up having such insults in its newspaper, naturally. The society that does not adopt precision and logic will have a media reflecting this. Summing this up, media is a mirror of society.

Do you agree with the term “Ikhwanisation” of the state’s institution, including media establishments?

I stated before that “Ikhwanisation” of the state, meaning that the Muslim Brotherhood bring in their own figures to occupy all administrative posts, is not what is currently happening. There is another thing that does not have an accurate translation: “taakhwun”, meaning that those who have no relation with the Muslim Brotherhood suddenly become members.

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