Amr Darrag’s message is both gloomy and optimistic, a little cynical for a former Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian Minister of Planning perhaps, but perfectly understandable when you remember that his old friend, the deposed Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, has recently been jailed for 20 years for using force against protesters.
It was a trick, he says – to gauge the international reaction to a trial which Amnesty described as a “sham”, before pressing other more serious charges, which may carry the death penalty.
The 56-year-old American-educated professor of engineering from Cairo University sits at the Istanbul coffee shop, clean-shaven, smart blue shirt, eloquent in English – not exactly the model of an ex-minister of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt.
He was only a minister for the last two months of Morsi’s rule, and Istanbul, I keep reminding myself, is more than 500 miles from Cairo, where Darrag – should he repeat the same words to me there – would be quickly trucked off to the Tora prison.
“I expected the sentence against Morsi,” he says. “There are three other charges against him. They gave him 20 years as a test for the international community – because according to the Egyptian constitution, he shouldn’t have been charged in the first place.
“They wanted to break this taboo and establish the principle that he could be tried – and if the international community didn’t act properly in response, there could be harsher penalties. If you are 60 years old and you get 20 years in prison, it’s a death sentence anyway!”
Darrag is no fool and he understood Baroness Catherine Ashton when the EU’s first High Representative for Foreign Affairs came to Cairo in the aftermath of the July 2013 military coup against Morsi.
“I was in charge of the foreign relations committee of the Freedom and Justice Party and I was still talking to everyone. Ashton came to see me four times,” he said.
“She was trying to convince us that it was all over, that ‘this is the reality right now – there are going to be (new) elections under a road map’. I told Ashton that Morsi would be a fool to have elections.”
When Ashton came to see Darrag the second time – clearly as a mouthpiece for the European powers, perhaps even for the regime, in his eyes – she told him she had been to see Morsi.
“She told me that her condition for coming to Egypt was that she was to see Morsi. She said she wanted to give a message to Morsi’s wife that he was all right. She said she went to his fridge in the military prison to make sure he was being given fresh food. She even went to his bathroom to make sure the shower was clean.
“She said she was not free to tell us the conversation she had with Morsi because he was not in a position to correct it. But Morsi’s son later told us she was trying to persuade Morsi to accept the situation, that he should sign (for more elections) because only 50,000 people were now on the streets to support him.
But Morsi told Ashton: “If there were only 50,000 people on the streets, you wouldn’t have come to see me.”
Amr Darrag was born in the Cairo suburb of Dokki and is now married with two children. He only took an interest in the Muslim Brotherhood when he was studying for his engineering doctorate at Purdue University in the US.
“I wasn’t very interested in being religious – my wife didn’t share my views, but she wasn’t against them. What attracted me was that these people had been exposed to a lot of suffering and torture and yet they held on to their principles. I asked myself: ‘Who are these people?’”
Darrag read Hassan al-Banna’s history of the Ikhwan (Brotherhood) and after being elected to Cairo University’s professors’ association, he became involved in the movement’s political committee. He became a close friend of Essam el-Erian, who was a leading figure in the organisation.
“We were about to have breakfast together – it was before the 2005 elections under Mubarak – when the police just exploded into the apartment. There must have been 1,000 police in the street – they blew the door down and came in wearing face masks and flak jackets. I went to jail for five months, to the Tora and Mazraa prisons – in those days it was heaven in the prisons compared with what happens there now.
“Later they made up a charge that I was trying to bring down the constitution. But I was never actually charged and I was freed because there had been a lot of pressure (on Mubarak) from Condoleezza Rice (George W Bush’s then secretary of state).”
At the time of the coup, Darrag was in Moscow in his dual government role of Minister of International Co-operation. “Putin was there, and al-Maliki of Iraq and President Ahmadinejad of Iran. Ahmadinejad asked me about Morsi and said: ‘We support him – please convey our best wishes to him.’ Then we went to a horse-racing event hosted by Putin.”
In even more surreal circumstances, Darrag continued to hold office for a few more days, signing off on government documents in Cairo. He then travelled to Abu Dhabi, where he had a consultancy business. He knew Field Marshal Sisi, of course, as Defence Minister in the cabinet. “He was a very closed man – I didn’t like him,” he says bleakly. He wants to live, he adds, within an Islam “which gives you directions in a very moderate way. I like to listen to pop music, classical music.”
But if you return to his Brotherhood friends locked up in Cairo, Darrag becomes a tougher man. “This is not about the Brotherhood. This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of Egypt. We will get rid of the military regime… Tens of thousands of us are in jail – but we believe this is not going to be in vain.”
For the moment, however, Darrag will remain in his Turkish exile. “The situation we are in now is not sustainable… Egyptians used to be very cautious,” he says. “They will not allow this to continue forever.”