Egyptian writer and liberal intellectual Dr. Tarek Heggy, who is an expert on petroleum policies, analyzed and tried repeatedly to spread the values of modernity, progress, and democracy. He advocates for women’s rights to the fullest and considers the woman not only half of the society but also the mother and nurturer of the second half.
According to Heggy, separating religion from the state, renewing religious discourse, and enlightening the Arab intellect through education, awareness and the dissemination of societal culture are the only means to attain the progress and advancement of Arab society.
Heggy supports focusing efforts on economic, political, cultural, and educational reform in Egypt and the Middle East to achieve social development.
As one of the symbols of Egypt’s liberal trend, Heggy believes that the Muslim Brotherhood’s taking the reins of power in his country was not a curse but rather a blessing somehow because it revealed the truth behind followers of the group who ruled Egypt.
He also rejects exaggeration and engaging in conspiracy theory and considers it a cultural problem that needs a revolution for change.
Heggy calls for a just political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict so that the countries of the region can focus on economic and social development processes.
Below is his interview with the Majalla that tackled the most pressing regional issues.
Q: You are considered an exceptional figure. How did you manage to be that and succeed in every step you take?
A: I love what I do and dedicate my life to my work. When I read, I dedicate all my time to reading and it is the same when I decide to write. At the beginning of my career, I was working in the field of petroleum, which has nothing to do with my university diploma in social sciences. I became head of the company for which I worked, while my colleagues had PhDs in engineering and physics.
Also, I am not sure whether this is good or bad for me, but unlike me, most people are busy thinking about money. I am mainly interested in what I do, and my only concern is to do my job well. The idea of not being preoccupied with the thought of money, even though it is a strange idea to some people, made me focus fully on what I do for a living.
Q: What made you love reading?
A: I started reading at a very young age. When I was 10, my mother entered my room and saw me reading a kids' magazine, and she was holding Tawfiq al-Hakim’s “Return of the Spirit.” She provoked me in a positive way by showing me she considered me a kid and pushed me to become a bookworm and read the whole book in one night.
Q: You described the Islamists’ access to power in some Arab countries as the only way to curb this monster. In your opinion, is their page closed? And has their truth been revealed to the Arab peoples?
A: I still believe it to be very useful that the Islamists took the reins of power in a country like Egypt, for example. It revealed that leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are only politicians who are using religion as a tool to attract people.
However, their page has not been closed yet since confronting them is considered the greatest challenge for the people of our region. In this regard, Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba said many decades ago that there are two powers in most of the Arab societies, one above the ground and one under the ground. The first is represented by the ruling figure or the army and the second is the Islamists.
This equation does not suddenly end, but perhaps the page of Islamist rule in the region has been turned, with Gaza as an exception, since they have a great influence in the Strip.
The end of Islamist rule may be very imminent, but their culture, penetration, and ramifications in the societies is still an existing and present danger that needs a cultural, educational, and media confrontation rather than a military one, which is considered the most convenient means.
Changing people’s perceptions cannot be done by force. Therefore, I think we are in the middle of the battle with the Islamists. One of the major examples is the situation in Lebanon, which is governed by Hezbollah, the Shiite party that does not believe in separating religion from the state.
Q: What is your opinion on the recent events in Tunisia? Has the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood ended in the Arab region?
A: The confrontation in Tunisia is ongoing and seems to be in favor of the secularists. But, we would be exaggerating if we say it is over. Nevertheless, if the Bourguibians, i.e., the secularists, win in Tunisia, it would be a wonderful step.
I think the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt has ended forever, unlike the situation in Tunisia. The Brotherhood, led by the Ennahda Party, did not yet resort to violence to curb protests, but it may do so anytime, and, once it does, the consequences won’t be simple.
But Arab societies are different. For instance, although the Sudanese government seems to be modern, remnants of former President Omar al-Bashir and the Brotherhood have not yet vanished.
In another example, about 13 million Egyptians voted for Mohamed Morsi, and I do not think they changed their ideology.
Let us suppose that half of them changed their outlook, the others still believe in the Brotherhood’s ideology, which constitutes an existing danger. Therefore, the battle is long, and we can only win through education and culture.
For these reasons, it is difficult to undermine the Brotherhood’s ideology. The Arab culture, in general, is based on religion and so is the Egyptian Christian society. For example, Arab culture cannot accept a modern marriage law, so the journey is long.
Because following a religion is the people’s easiest culture, we start the battle weak and almost as losers.
For instance, there are at least 200,000 mosques in Egypt and they are open 52 weeks per year. If between 10 and 11 million Friday sermons are held annually, then who can easily compete with this number, and who else has such a massive amount of pulpits?
Q: How in your opinion can the presence of so many mosques have a negative impact on society?
A: When I was young, Friday sermons tackled religious subjects, but they are now at least semi-political. If sermons were limited to religion and morals, there would not be any problem. However, clerics constantly talk about hostility to modernity, directly and indirectly, express their hostility to modern women and sometimes stress their opposition to women working. They believe women should be at the service of men, and according to most of them, women are present for procreation and pleasure. Spreading this culture continuously and extensively threatens society.
Clerics in Egypt are not neutral and neither are clerics in most Arab countries. It is part of the Islamic intellectual system. We have all seen two examples of secular Muslim societies, which are Turkey and Tunisia.
Both countries banned polygamy, forbid men to divorce their wives verbally, required a court order for official divorce, and imposed equality between men and women in inheritance.
But in 1980, the Turks elected a Muslim Brotherhood figure who might be the Brotherhood’s guide in the region.
Also in Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party came to power, and Tunisia became ruled by Rached Ghannouchi. This revealed the mistake of not causing change through education, awareness, and culture.
Q: What do you think of those who say that the government in Egypt is enveloped in secularism?
A: Egyptians chose the military establishment, and the July 3, 2013 revolution affirmed it was supported by a popular will.
In fact, there are parties in Egypt, but they are ridiculously small, and they cannot obtain a single vote in the elections. Not to mention that Egyptians are okay with the army, knowing that there is no alternative except the Alawites, unlike almost all Syrians.
If I were offered now to become the President of the Republic of Egypt, I would not accept because I do not have the necessary tools to assume this post. What can I do without tools to face the dangers of the eastern border with Gaza, the Nile Waters issue, and the Brotherhood’s attack that almost came from Libya?
In short, there is one force capable of ruling Egypt, which is the army. The alternative is to resort to fundamentalism, which means the end.
Q: How do you interpret the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan? Some considered it a victory for political Islam while others said it is an introduction to a bleak future in the region, especially with the withdrawal of the US forces.
A: The Taliban’s return to power is a disaster, and it signals a dark future in some countries.
This is another example of the United States’ very dangerous policies. I have recently visited the US ambassador in London and asked him if Iran is the US’ enemy, and his answer was “yes.”
I wondered why the US handed Iraq over to Iran, making it the most influential political force in the country. Therefore, I see that the US foreign policy is flawed.
One of the things that surprised me the most is that the Egyptian army, which was 100 percent armed by the United States before 2014, is now 50 percent armed by France, Italy, Germany, and Russia since dependency is linked to the armament process.
Q: How do you see the future of the region?
A: The development in Saudi Arabia is remarkable. I have never imagined that I would see this positive change and development. The educated middle class is very happy with these changes.
As for the rest of the countries in the region, the situation varies. It is relatively good in Egypt, Sudan, the Gulf States, and Morocco, unlike the rest of the countries. I do not have any reason to believe that the future of Iraq will be good, while all options are possible in Libya.
I am optimistic about Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, and relatively optimistic about the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. I am not aware of a solution for Syria and Lebanon due to the Iranian penetration. Is it reasonable, for example, to have an armed party affiliated with Iran whose military strength is not less than that of the country’s army, if not more?!
Q: Do you support the peace deals signed between Israel and several Arab states?
A: I believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict should not have been either religious or military from the beginning. If it were a religious conflict, the world would sympathize with the Jews, and if it were a military conflict, of course, Israel would win, being a tributary of the West in the region.
All the Arab countries buy the F-16 fighter jet from the United States and fly it with standard fittings while Israelis modify it because this is part of Western culture. The residents of Israel are not Middle Eastern, they are of European and American origins.
As for the political conflict, we have been there for a short period during late President Anwar Sadat’s era, and he was able to recover Egyptian land.
The relationship between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, and Morocco is an expected result of international politics.
The major problem is the relationship between Palestinians and the Israelis. Both do not want to reach a solution, but Israelis are being vague while Palestinians are very clear. Hamas, the Islamist Jihad, and Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) are all clear they don’t want to resolve this matter.
In November 1947, the United Nations proposed terminating the British Mandate and partitioning Palestine into two independent states, one Palestinian Arab and the other Jewish.
If this proposal were submitted today, Arabs would accept it and feel grateful. Those who rejected the partition resolution at the time rejected the political solution while resorting to the military solution, which likely served Israel’s interest in most cases.
Therefore, the situation should be considered logically. Bourguiba asked Gamal Abdel Nasser if he could achieve victory over Israel militarily, but his answer was “No because it is backed by the US.”
Bourguiba then said that the only choice available was to negotiate, but Abdel Nasser rejected this. However, he eventually accepted the Rogers initiative, which marked the beginning of talks between Egypt and Israel.
It paved the way for negotiations in the last three years of Abdel Nasser’s life, during which Palestinians were insulting and cursing him.
Arabs should accept the fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict is political. Achieving victory does not only mean staying alive, as Hezbollah claimed in Lebanon during the July 2006 war with Israel. Back then, Israel destroyed Lebanon’s infrastructure, and the cost of that war on Lebanon was very high.
Q: In 2015, you issued a controversial statement, in which you said that Islam currently is just a heritage. Do you think that religious practices have nothing to do with Islam, and do we need to renew religious discourse to end this heritage?
A: In my opinion, the religious and spiritual part of Islam is not the focus of the Islamists’ attention. They are instead concerned about the aspects related to the Islamic nation and the application of Sharia. These matters are based on traditional rather than religious texts and they must be reviewed.
Nevertheless, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi proposed reviewing the religious discourse and canceling the verbal divorce, Al-Azhar refused, stressing that divorce is one of the fundamentals of religion in Egypt.
For these reasons, I believe the religious institutions in most Islamic countries have become politically influential.
Nowadays, Saudi Arabia is more willing than Egypt to renew the religious discourse. Al-Azhar represents an independent political force in Egypt. I once said if it were up to me, I would have stopped funding it, so it dedicated an entire 24-page magazine dubbed “Voice of Al-Azhar” against me.
The Egyptian state pays Al-Azhar more than one billion dollars annually. As long as it is financed by the state, it must abide by the state’s policies, but this isn’t happening.
Q: Why doesn’t the state take such decisions?
A: I think it is avoiding conflict with the religious establishment, but I also believe the state will take gradual measures. Renewing the religious discourse means reducing the distance between Islamic intellect and the current era, which they totally reject.
Q: Most of your writings focus on advancing the status of women and non-Muslim Egyptians. How do you evaluate the role of women and Copts in Egypt, what should the Egyptian state do to improve their social status?
A: The Egyptian state is certainly unjust when it comes to women and Christians.
A woman is said to represent half of society, but this is absurd. She is practically half of it, but also the mother and nurturer for the other half. If she suffers cognitive distortion or her mentality is subordinate, this will be reflected in her male son. Therefore, no society can develop without the development of all its members.
If women represent half of the society numerically and are the mothers of the other half, then any intellectual advancement will be reflected on the society, and vice versa.
Egypt’s society is masculine, and so is its religious culture, and many women support the masculine culture, reflecting the Stockholm Syndrome.
We will not be considered modern people nor will our society be considered advanced unless women enjoy the same political and societal rights as men.
The woman is not owned by the man, and this change must take place through the law because every Eastern man considers himself dominant.
Therefore, we request a legal legislative reference that ensures women obtain all of the constitutional, legal, and political rights enjoyed by men.
On the real work scale, we want to see women in at least 50 percent of the positions.
The same should be applied to Christians. We have to admit that they are first-class Egyptian citizens, who have their constitutional, legal, societal, and political rights. Once we realize this, we have to ask whether they have equal opportunities with Muslims. In fact, they do not. Western embassies say there are between 17 and 18 million Egyptian Copts. If 15 percent of the Egyptian population is Christian, do they actually occupy 15 percent of the senior positions, such as deans and university presidents? Of course not.
Therefore, most of them succeed in trade and business management, as many of the rich in Egypt are Copts.
Q: You had a special tie with Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria. Is he considered one of the exceptional figures that influenced your intellectual life? What was the secret of this relationship that brought you together?
A: I was a young man in the period before Pope Shenouda, and now I know the current Pope Tawadros II. But my relationship with who was before Pope Shenouda and who came after him cannot be compared to my relationship with him.
I didn't know him as a patriarch, I knew him as a man. He was a poet who had collections of poetry. He was a politician and a history teacher. He was a writer.
A culture brought us together, and I was impressed by his love for the Arabic language, which he mastered like a native Arab, and he has a wonderful poetry collection.
We first met in February 1987, and our friendship lasted for 35 years until his death. We used to meet in the Monastery of Saint Pishoy in the desert. We met about 100 times and sat for hours under the tree talking about Al-Maarri, Al-Mutanabbi, Al-Baroudi, and Shawqi.
This man was in love with Gibran Khalil Gibran and knew all his writings.
Our relationship was primarily a cultural one and we shared our love of literature, and we never talked about religion.
In order to commemorate these meetings, I wrote a book that has not yet been published, titled “Bila Nazeer,” after the Pope’s real name.
I was keen in my book to tackle our meetings and dialogues, as well as his relationship with Abdel Nasser and his tense relationship with Anwar Sadat, and the conditions of Christians in Egypt since it was a monarchy.
He is an Egyptian thinker, and many consider him one of the enlightening Egyptian figures. He has 34 books published in Arabic, English, French and Italian.
In 2008, he received the Italian Grinzane Cavour award, which is considered one of the most important European cultural prizes.
The University of Toronto (Canada’s largest university) named a scholarship after him, which is the Trek Heggy Scholarship for the MA and Ph.D. in Historical Relations between Muslims and Jews.
He has been a member of the Valdai Discussion Club since 2012. Russian President Vladimir Putin attends all of its sessions.
He was selected as a member of the boards of directors and boards of trustees of more than 30 associations, colleges, universities, and institutions.
He is a member of the Administrative Sciences Committee of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Culture, the Board of Trustees of the Arab Management Association, and the University of Modern Sciences and Arts (MSA).
He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Egyptian Society for Historical Studies, (whose board members include His Highness Sheikh Sultan al-Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah), the Egyptian Association for Cultural and Social Development, the Renaissance Association for Education, the Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences at Cairo University, among others.
He has been invited as a lecturer to a large number of American universities and research centers such as Oxford University, University of London, Princeton University, Columbia University, University of California Berkeley, and dozens of American, European, and Japanese universities that are too numerous to mention all in this brief biography.
He also gave speeches in several parliaments, such as the British Parliament (10 times), the US Congress, the Italian House of Representatives, and the Australian Parliament.
He also lectured at the most important Middle East research centers in Washington.
In addition to his many cultural, intellectual, and academic activities, he is one of the experts for international petroleum policy. He was the President of Shell International Petroleum Companies in Egypt from 1988 until 1998.
He also supervised Shell companies at Major Resource Holders from 1993 until 1998.
He was a university professor at the beginning of his career gave lectures at the University of Constantine in Algeria from 1973 to 1976, and at the University of Fez in Morocco from 1976 to 1979.
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