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Egypt: 529 Islamists Sentenced to Die; Libya's Power Struggle; Imagine a World

Aired March 25, 2014 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

We see it in Libya; we see it in Egypt and we're seeing it now in Ukraine, popular revolutions that don't always go according to plan.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): President Barack Obama on a swing through Europe is trying to deal with Russian aggression in Crimea and fears that the Big Bear's appetite is not yet sated. In fact, the U.S. says Russia has added 10,000 more troops, making that 30,000 Russian troops poised on the Ukraine border right now. Although Moscow insists it's no buildup, just exercises.


AMANPOUR: Next, President Obama heads to the Arab world, albeit bypassing the Arab Spring countries, but not the problems they pose.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): After NATO gave cover for regime change in Libya, the country today is in near total anarchy and tonight I speak to the prime minister who had to flee after a warlord took over the oil-rich province and threatened to secede.


AMANPOUR: But first to Egypt, where democracy has literally been handed a death sentence by Egypt's authorization military regime. Trials are now underway that have produced a breathtaking miscarriage of justice. Yesterday 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were sentenced to die for the killing of one police officer. It is the largest mass death sentence seen anywhere ever, at least in modern memory.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): And today, another 682 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, including their spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie, were in court on charges stemming from the same incident.


AMANPOUR: And of course when we say trials, we mean sessions that lasted less than an hour with not a shred of evidence and no witnesses presented against the accused, who, in turn, were not allowed to put up a defense.

Now Ambassador Salah Abdel Sadek is chairman of Egypt's State Information Service. He's an official in the current military-backed government that took power after President Morsy was deposed, and he joins me now by phone from Cairo.

Mr. Abdel Sadek, thank you very much indeed for joining me. Let me first ask you can you understand the world's reaction to what happened and what is happening in this Cairo court? This huge mass death sentence?

AMBASSADOR SALAH ABDEL SADEK, CHAIRMAN, EGYPT'S STATE INFORMATION SERVICE: Yes, of course, the reaction is quite clear, Christiane. But however, you know, it has to be in perspective. So what we know by understanding the world's reaction.

AMANPOUR: Well, when you say put it in perspective, I'm interested to know what perspective you have in mind because, as I said, this is the largest ever such death sentence handed down anywhere ever that we can record and, as I said, under conditions that not a single person who has any relationship to the world of justice believes is relevant or valid at all.

So I guess do you understand that?

And do you support this kind of thing?

SADEK: It's not a matter of supporting, Christiane. You know, commenting on the actions where by tone quoters (ph) regarding a decision of the failing death sentence against these 529 defenders, who were implicated in acts of sabotage and violent affront, you know, offensive.

They were referred to the Grand Mufti of the Republic for his opinion. And we -- one of the basic principles of any system or democratic system is has the police, the command abilities and confirming the independence of the judiciary, together with non-interference by executive authority, which I - -


AMANPOUR: Ooh, ooh, ooh.

SADEK: -- judicial authority.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Abdel Sadek --

SADEK: -- I found the difficulty to command on the ruling itself and it's not a ruling. It's a decision. It's not a verdict.

AMANPOUR: Right. I'm sorry; forgive me, but we always hear this business about a separation of powers and an independent judiciary. I know you're not going to comment any more about this ongoing trial.

But let me ask you to comment on this, then, because this presumably falls under your purview.

Many Egyptian television stations and radio shows have praised this, have been celebrating this on the air. Let me quote you what one anchor, one presenter said, that, "May they be 10,000, 20,000, not 500." He's talking about those who are sentenced to death. "We are not sad, we are happy."

I mean, is that not an extraordinary kind of comment at a time when Egypt is so terribly divided?

Does this not just add to the polarization and the divisions, the dangerous divisions in your country?

SADEK: Well, I don't agree at all with what -- whoever this commentator have said. First, it's not a judge to such a thing and to give such a vertex (ph) of such a decisions.

Secondly, it has to be the court of law who decides who is guilty and who is not. So I definitely, doesn't don't agree about that. However, if you're mentioning numbers, no, I don't accept that and I don't that this is suitable at all.

AMANPOUR: And, again, he wasn't the only one. There were many.

But this, of course, is sympathetic of what's happening in your country right now, where journalists are being forced into one camp or another and it's either you're with us or against us, that old canard that, if you don't support the government, then you're against the government.

You have also got many, many journalists in jail right now including colleagues from our networks.

Is that something that you think is constructive to the current dilemma that Egypt faces?

Putting people in jail just for reporting the objective facts?

SADEK: Well, I agreed with your first statement of and appropriate for somebody to comment to the while he's not (INAUDIBLE). But I beg to differ a little bit, Christiane. We don't have many journalists in custody or in jail. And I can't recall that any of the CNN reporters who are in jail.

We have people who have broken the Egyptian law and they are being dealt with with the normal Egyptian law, not with an exceptional (INAUDIBLE) or anything of that. They are being built with upon the normal Egyptian law for creating the law.

And they are in the court. So in the court, I know they are going to be, you know, freed for not being guilty of anything. All they are going to be to have some kind of a verdict.


SADEK: Against what they have done.


SADEK: So we don't imprison journalists.

AMANPOUR: Well, you do. I'm sorry, sir, but you do, because when I say our colleagues, I'm talking about the Al Jazeera journalists, not to mention the many Egyptian --

SADEK: Oh, I thought you were speaking about CNN.

AMANPOUR: No, I said colleagues. And I said journalists and I'm talking about the great brother -- sir, listen to me. Listen to me one second.

SADEK: -- it's a law.

AMANPOUR: No, sir. No, sir. Everybody knows that these are politically trumped-up charges. There has been not a shred of evidence presented in court, not to mention that, your own interim president has written a letter to the parents of at least one of them, saying that he would expedite matters and expedite the system.

As you know, they have been in jail for three months, many of them, all of them with no proper charges leveled against them and no proper representation in court.

So my question is -- and we're not going to argue about this case. How -- do you actually -- I guess do the new Egyptian authorities give a -- let's say a damn about what the rest of the world thinks about them?

And are you not concerned about the future you're soon going to have elections about the continued divisions in your country and the continued march towards an authoritarian dictatorship that hasn't been seen since the Nasser era?

SADEK: Well, using such words and dictatorship and totalitarian, we ourselves well abiding by our Egyptian law. Of course we care about opinions and about reactions, and that's why I'm talking to you now.

But again this does not have to be by breaking our own law or not respecting our own law. Wait and see what happens in the verdict of the 529 defendants. Just a decision. It's not a verdict.

And it has been withheld to after the judge has listened to eyewitnesses and seen some of the evidence, they have called it evidence. It has been interesting to take the opinion of the Grand Mufti of the Republic. And this opinion of the mufti is not mandatory and that when the case papers are referred back to the court, the judge has the right whether to uphold his decision or to change it.

And this is our own (INAUDIBLE) of the decision and the court decision in this matter. And it has there is another way I mean to challenge there is the right to challenge the verdict in the court of taxation and even there is lots and lots of instances of different examples and incidents which happened that this court of taxation has referred this kind of decisions or votes taken by the first decree court.

AMANPOUR: All right. Well, I seem to think that reading between the lines of what you're saying, you're saying that this is a show decision and it's likely to be overturned. We'll see and we'll keep watching.

Mr. Salah Abdel Sadek, thank you very much for joining me from Cairo.

And now I want to turn to Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, author of "Temptations of Power: Islamists and Liberal Democracy in a New Middle East." He's joining me from Washington, D.C.

Shadi Hamid, thank you for being with me. You heard what Mr. Abdel Sadek just said regarding this trial. Sum it up for me.

Is this just a declaration of decision or is this actually a serious -- well, to their mind, judicial move that's going to stand?

SHADI HAMID, AUTHOR: There's a chance -- there's a chance that this will be overturned. But that doesn't change the basic message here, is that there was the largest mass death sentence in modern Egyptian history.

Now I mean, international pressure could affect the final outcome and hopefully now with the outcry the Egyptian authorities will rethink their decision. But Egypt does not have an independent judiciary. It's a very politicized judiciary. And let's recall they played a very active role in supporting the military coup on July 3rd.

So we can't treat Egypt as a normal democratic state, where there's a separation of powers, as Mr. Abdel Sadek said. This is politicized and I think that's very clear in just looking at how the court sessions turned out, with only a couple hours.

And defense lawyers not able to even present arguments.

AMANPOUR: Put it in a little bit of context as this country moves towards elections, which most people believe are already a done deal.

What is your opinion about how this kind of violation of basic judicial process not to mention all the other authoritarian moves that have been imposed since July, when the military took over, how is that going to shape up? What are we going to see at the elections and the results of those elections?

HAMID: Well, I think the broader context here is that the sheer level of oppression we've seen since the coup is unprecedented. And at the very beginning, we were comparing to the Mubarak regime. Now those comparisons aren't even appropriate. We have to go all the way back to the Nasser era to see this level of repression. In many ways it's surpassed that. I mean, let's not even mention what was -- what Human Rights Watch calls the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history on August 14th. So that's a kind of context we're talking about.

As we move into elections, the question is is there going to be a real process where opposing voices can be heard? And as far as we can tell, the answer to that is, no. Field Marshal Abu Fatah al-Sisi is most likely to run and if he runs, there's really no question that he'll win. And so it's kind of a charade, a stage managed process.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you this, then, because you talked about the violence and particularly the August massacre.

We have a graphic that shows Egyptians who've been killed in political violence since June 2013, when the military took over. Up until just January of this year, 2,558 were killed in protests and clashes compared to 281 in terrorism.

Of those killed in protests and clashes, 98 percent are civilians; 2 percent are police.

What is this saying obviously, about the imbalance of the violence and the killings, but what does it also say about the oppression of a huge sector of society, and that is the Muslim Brotherhood supporters? What is going to happen to them? What is the backlash going to be, do you think?

HAMID: Well, I think part of what's going on here is that elements of this new regime are using this to get back at the Brotherhood. And we're seeing a kind of, you know, almost a kind of vengeance here that they see the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat. And they're using this populist moment in Egyptian history to deliver what they hope to be a decisive blow against the Brotherhood.

And it's worth noting that this isn't just a regime that's acting on its own. It has the passionate enthusiastic support of millions of Egyptians. And as we saw, the television anchor who was asking for more repression. And there's a kind of blood lust on the popular level. It's hard to say how widespread this is. But we can say there is a significant segment of the population that wants to see the Brotherhood punished regardless if there's due process, if people are innocent or guilty. It doesn't matter. And that's what I think is so frightening about this new political order in Egypt, is that there's a kind of neo-fascist populist sentiment which is asking for blood. And that's what makes it very difficult to turn back against this. And in some respects, the military is under that kind of popular pressure.

AMANPOUR: Well, President Obama is going to visit Saudi Arabia at the end of this week. Saudi Arabia is now supporting these authorities. What can the United States -- what should the United States do and what is President Obama going to tell the Saudi king about this, if anything?

HAMID: Well, Obama administration has to make a decision fairly soon about whether to resume military aid and to certify whether Egypt is taking steps towards democracy. That's what the congressional language says.

So Kerry, Secretary Kerry will have to certify that in the coming weeks or the coming months. And Egypt has not even come close to meeting the minimal standards outlined by the congressional language on this.

If Kerry goes ahead and certifies, it's going to be embarrassing for the U.S. It'll be transparently cynical because no one can argue in good faith that the Egyptian regime is taking serious, genuine steps towards democracy.

So I think the Obama administration is in this kind of -- in this sensitive situation. They want to resume aid because they see Egypt as a close strategic ally. But it's very hard for them to make that argument.

The other side of this is that there's major Gulf support for the military regime in Egypt. And we're talking about billions and billions of dollars going to try to stabilize the Egyptian economy. And I think that kind of regional support makes it difficult to put pressure on the Egyptian government. So I think one thing Obama has to talk about or should talk about with his counterparts in Saudi Arabia or the emirates is you know, this is not in U.S. national security interest. This is not a good thing because it's undermining Egypt's -- it's undermining Egypt's situation right now by encouraging the kind of authoritarian measures we've been seeing the last eight months.

AMANPOUR: Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, thank you very much for joining me from Washington.


AMANPOUR: And from Egypt to Libya, where the revolution to topple four decades of dictatorship is coming full circle to a new kind of dictatorship, warlords and militias on the payroll of the very government they are attacking. This is what Libya's prime minister, Ali Zeidan, told me about his country last year.


ALI ZEIDAN, LIBYAN PRIME MINSTER (through translator): Libya is not a failing state. The state of Libya doesn't exist yet. We are trying to create a state.


AMANPOUR: And how right he was, because he's now had to flee the country. After a break, he joins me once again. He says it will now take an international ground force to rescue Libya from total failure.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. And what a distant dream the Arab Spring now seems, as President Obama heads to Saudi Arabia. He is sure to hear dissolution with revolutions that have descended into disorder and back into tyranny.

In Libya, NATO toppled Moammar Gadhafi but first fast forward to three years to now to a Libya in the grip of militias who call the shots, often against the government who pay them a monthly salary. That is the very government those warlords are undermining.

Earlier this month, rebels illegally loaded tens of thousands of tons of oil onto this tanker and escaped into international waters. U.S. Navy SEALs promptly boarded and returned the ship to rightful authorities.

But it was the final nail in the coffin for the beleaguered prime minister, Ali Zeidan, who was forced from office and ended up here in Europe for refusing to accept an international peacekeeping force in the beginning. He is now calling for one. But will the cavalry ever come?

I asked him when he joined me here in the studio.


AMANPOUR: Ali Zeidan, welcome.


AMANPOUR: Former prime minister.

ZEIDAN: I'm still a prime minister.

AMANPOUR: That's what you say?


AMANPOUR: How on Earth do you think you're going to get back?

ZEIDAN (through translator): The situation requires a few arrangement and I will go back there.

AMANPOUR: How? Aren't you afraid of being arrested? Are you not afraid of being put on trial?

How are you going to go back? What are you going to do?

ZEIDAN (through translator): I will return to Libya in a normal way, if through an airport, or on a plane. I did not commit any crime that requires to be arrested.

There are forces from with the army, legitimate forces in the country, that will protect me. And I am supported by a segment of the population that will be behind me.

AMANPOUR: Let me start with the issue that made you flee.

This guy, Ibrahim Jadran, who's meant to be part of the facilities guard, the oil facilities, has essentially taken control of that part of Libya.

But he wants to carve out a separate province, Cyrenaica. Many people say that there could be civil war or partition in Libya. And as we watch Crimea, do you think that's a possibility?

ZEIDAN (through translator): This will not happen in Libya. What happened today is because the national conference in Libya that is in control of the country, and you have extremist elements in control of that, who reconstructed the situation in Libya. But once these issues are resolved, I think the situation will become much better.

But this is, like I said, will not happen in Libya as happened in Russia.

AMANPOUR: You will agree that ever since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, security has been nonexistent. You yourself were kidnapped at least once.

Do you believe that you made a mistake, Libyan leaders made a mistake and the West made a mistake after the fall of Gadhafi by not putting in a bigger and better security force on the ground?

ZEIDAN (through translator): During Gadhafi's time, there was security, but also there were oppression. What happened during and after the war with Gadhafi, there was bad judgment on part of the West for not putting too many troops on the ground. But that was, at that time, given the circumstances of that time, the people of Libya had hopes that situation can be better.

But what we ended up with is that the national conference in Libya is mismanaged the country and that resulting in having extremist and jihadist forces coming or groups coming from Libya and Syria, using Libya as a base to conduct terrorist operations.

AMANPOUR: Just to be clear, in retrospect, do you wish that the West had put boots on the ground, forces to maintain security and that Libyan authorities, the new Libyan authorities had asked for that and accepted that?

ZEIDAN (through translator): Any mean to have security will be accepted in Libya. I think if we wish to this situation, we should have forces that part of the United Nations, regional or Middle Eastern troops or countries that have relations or connections in Libya and if this takes place under the international community, under the United Nations, it will be accepted.

AMANPOUR: Is Al Qaeda in Libya? There are concerns by Western intelligence agencies that in the remote parts, in the southern parts, the eastern parts of Libya, there are bases of Al Qaeda.

ZEIDAN (through translator): It is difficult to say that there is Al Qaeda in Libya. But what all these groups are doing as far as explosions and murder and executions and killing people in different manners, gives the impression that if it wasn't Al Qaeda, that is Al Qaeda.

AMANPOUR: Let's just go back to the Benghazi attack on the anniversary of 9/11 a couple of years ago. The hunt for the suspects, for the perpetrators was led by your government. And yet no one was apprehended.

Why is that?

ZEIDAN (through translator): Because there is weakness in the security agencies and the intelligence groups, and because the intelligence apparatus was destroyed after the revolution, and because there are people who want the security apparatus to be weak. But after the revolution, the security apparatus will rebuild itself.

But without having good intelligence, given there was no strong police force that able to arrest anybody. However, the government was cooperating with the U.S. and achieved some results on the ground. But we hope that the perpetrators can be arrested in order for us to reach the truth.

AMANPOUR: Ali Zeidan, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

ZEIDAN (through translator): Thank you so much.


AMANPOUR: Now hope may be on the way and in Libya, after a break, there's no escaping our doubts and insecurities about the future or is there? The great escape that still inspires, when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, Russia's land grab in Crimea has heightened tensions throughout Eastern Europe, rekindling memories of World War II when Stalin's Red Army carved up countries like Poland and devoured them with its Axis partner, Nazi Germany.

Now imagine a world where one bright memory from that same dark time still quickens the blood in the cause of freedom. Survivors gathered and flowers were laid to remember 70 years ago when some 76 Allied prisoners slipped out of their prisoner of war camp with forged documents and improved civilian clothing hoping to make it to freedom.

It was called "The Great Escape," and it was famously depicted in the Hollywood blockbuster of 1963 starring Steve McQueen. It showed how hundreds of prisoners of war planned and executed the daring breakout. As in the movie, the real Great Escape was launched from a Nazi prisoner of war camp located in what is now Western Poland.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There will be no escapes from this camp.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Hundreds of prisoners spent more than a year secretly digging tunnels code named Tom, Dick and Harry. Now Tom and Dick were discovered by the guards, but harry survived, running 100 meters beneath the camp. Of the many prisoners who tried, only three avoided capture and made it back to England. Of the rest, 50 were gunned down by the Gestapo, a war crime that Adolf Hitler personally ordered. Those 50 and their fellow prisoners were remembered today with flowers and ceremony. But Poland and the rest of Russia's anxious neighbors may be contemplating another kind of great escape to come these days.

And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.