ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. This week's United Nations General Assembly is the first one since Egypt's elected president was ousted following mass protests. And joining us to talk about some current issues facing Egypt is the foreign minister of the current interim government, the former Egyptian ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy. Foreign Minister Fahmy, welcome to the program.
NABIL FAHMY: Thank you.
SIEGEL: President Obama mentioned Egypt when he addressed the U.N. He said the interim government that ousted President Mohammad Morsi responded to the desires of millions of Egyptians. But he said they have since made decisions inconsistent with inclusive democracy. Do you take that as a sign of good relations or of criticism from Washington?
FAHMY: Well, I think it's a reflection that on the one hand, the president, and therefore America, understands what really happened in Egypt. The people responded to the lack of inclusiveness on the part of the former president. And that's important because that indicates what actually happened and why. On the other hand, the references that President Obama made to specific measures that he considered to be inconsistent with democracy and inclusiveness are all steps that were taken to deal with an exceptional circumstances.
We have serious security problems. That's why the emergency status, for example, was extended. That's why when people are incite to violence, they're arrested. And these steps frankly, when we succeed to develop a democracy, they would not be part of it.
SIEGEL: But the former president - the ousted President Morsi is still detained. Several of his top political allies are under arrest. Some newspapers have been shut down. How can Egypt move on to democratic elections that involve the sizable minority of people there who identify with the Brotherhood when you have criminalized - the courts have criminalized the Muslim Brotherhood?
FAHMY: I'm glad you mentioned the courts because that decision was taken by the court, not by the government. The government has not taken any action on it because this is the first level of the court. There still is a three-level appeal process. And the Muslim Brotherhood is appealing the court decision. If you want to develop a democracy, it has to be based on the rule of law. And those who apply the rule of law are the courts. It's not the government.
SIEGEL: This was a ruling that not only banned the group but also seized - ordered all of its assets seized.
FAHMY: Yes. But then, the next morning, the Muslim Brotherhood appealed it and now it's in the appeal process. But I would add also, again, that if you go back two years when the former President Mubarak was removed, there were a lot of court cases. And in the first round they were all found guilty. And then most of them - the overwhelming majority - were found innocent on appeal. So the court system does work.
SIEGEL: Well, you have talked about the progress that Egypt intends to make coping with its current problems. What's a reasonable timeframe for actually having open elections in which they might be contested by people who might even identify with the Muslim Brotherhood?
FAHMY: This whole thing, whole process has to finish within nine months, which means - from when it started, which means spring. We are now finishing the constitution. It will be put to a referendum before the end of the year. Within two months after that there will be elections for parliament, and within two months maximum after that an election for president. We are not allowed to go beyond the nine-month time limit. So this whole - the whole process has to finish in nine months.
SIEGEL: Is General Al-Sissi today merely the defense minister of the interim government or is he the most important official of the interim government, as he's the man who put it in power?
FAHMY: The people put it in power, that's my first point.
SIEGEL: Well, the military acting in response to the people who would say put it in power.
FAHMY: Of course, of course. Secondly, the - General Al-Sissi attends the cabinet meetings like all the other ministers. Needless to say, of course, because there's a security problem, because the police are taking the lead on this but the military is supportive in strategic situations. So when there is a security issue, the ministers of interior and the minister of defense have a particular significance. But in terms of the political weight and what happens in the decision-making process, with all frankness, he plays his role as a cabinet member and is very, very normal in terms of what's happening.
In other words, we consult with him when it relates to security issues. Besides that, the procedure is you consult with the prime minister, which is also consulted on security measures.
SIEGEL: On relations with the U.S., you were quoted in the Arabic language paper Al Hayat as saying that Egyptian decision-making will not be influenced by U.S. aide. How important are the views of the president or the opinions of the United States or the military relationship with the United States?
FAHMY: We don't live in isolation, so what the international community thinks of us is important to us. There's no question about that. We want to be - we will again regain our position internationally and will play an active role. And that means playing by the rules of the game internationally. So there's - let me be very straightforward about that. That being said, on issues of national security, we will make up our own mind.
SIEGEL: But does that mean that you regard the situation in Egypt today as a necessary, if unfortunate pause - a timeout, that you have to get back to a different condition than what you're in right now?
FAHMY: Of course we do. And frankly, if our friends understand that, work with us on that - and I think they will. I mean, the president actually said, I will work with the interim government, then it will progress more quickly. If we have to do it without the support of our friends, we will do that as well.
SIEGEL: President - former President Mubarak, whom you served when you were ambassador to Washington, his family somehow came by a fortune estimated at perhaps a billion dollars from being president of Egypt. Should he get away with that or should the Egyptian people call him to account for enriching himself and his family in that office?
FAHMY: If we're following the rumor mill, it's actually much more than that. With that being said, this has to be decided by the courts. If there is any element of corruption, then the Egyptian people have the right to pursue that legally and to make their claim to it. If the rumors are not true or if there's no evidence, if the money, whatever amount it is, was done legitimately then needless to say we have to accept that. But I do believe that any money that was taken through illegal or corrupt means should be returned.
SIEGEL: Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, thank you very much for talking with us today.
FAHMY: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Nabil Fahmy, the foreign minister of Egypt, spoke to us from Egyptian Mission to the United Nations in New York.
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