In his tastefully decorated villa in an exclusive suburban development to the west of Cairo, and just a few kilometers north of the Giza pyramids, Mohamed ElBaradei holds court nearly around the clock, meeting with opposition activists and journalists as he helps plot the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's dictatorial regime, now rocked on its heels by three weeks of protests that nobody -- including the former diplomat and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency himself -- predicted.
ElBaradei, a tall, articulate technocrat who often sounds more like a detached analyst than a political leader, is an unlikely figure to be leading a revolt organized on the ground and over the Internet by a loose amalgam of youth groups and unaffiliated activists. Although he boasts nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter, he speaks somewhat awkwardly about social networking sites, visibly searching for the right terminology. (His latest tweet: "Entire nation is on the streets. Only way out is for regime to go. People power can't be crushed. We shall prevail. Still hope army can join.")
Yet of all the local political figures claiming to speak for the tens of thousands of demonstrators occupying Tahrir Square -- something he is generally careful not to do -- it is ElBaradei who has remained the most consistent and unyielding in his condemnation of Egypt's six decades under thinly veiled military rule and the gross corruption, socioeconomic ills, and political instability the Mubarak regime is leaving behind.
From his first return to Egypt last February, ElBaradei denounced the entire system as unsalvageable, calling instead for a nationwide campaign for genuine political reform. While Western reporters probed for signs that ElBaradei sought to contest the 2011 presidential election, his youthful supporters gathered more than a million signatures in favor of a seven-point reform platform, building a surprisingly effective grassroots organization and, as ElBaradei puts it, helping to break the "culture of fear" in Egypt.
While ElBaradei has not ruled out a run for the presidency under certain conditions, he seems to recognize that he's not the kind of populist leader Egypt's teeming masses have typically rallied around (a recent poll estimates his support at around 3 percent). In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, conducted at his home on Thursday, Feb. 10, ElBaradei described his role as more of a coach, dismissed the Egyptian government's efforts to negotiate a way out of the current crisis as "faulty," and urged the West to declare itself firmly on the side of the Egyptian people -- before it's too late:
Foreign Policy: You've always said that your role is to be a catalyst for change. You're not a politician; you're not a grassroots organizer. But now that change is starting to happen with these huge demonstrations, how do you see your role evolving?
Mohamed ElBaradei: I always said I'm an agent for change. I'm not a grassroots organizer; that is clear. I believe in a division of labor. I'm not trained to organize the grassroots, and grassroots has to come from the grassroots.
But I never said I'm not a politician. Obviously I've been practicing politics, if you like, for the past 30, 40 years in different [forms] either through my International Atomic Energy Agency work or before that in the diplomatic service. And that essentially is what I've been doing in the last year; it's political work.
[As for] my role, since I left the agency and since I came here last February, immediately after I left the agency people asked me to participate in the process of change. Obviously, there has been a process going on for at least five years when people started.… You have seen small protests, demonstrations, but it's always been 50 to 100 people, you know. And the government was tolerating that as a sign of freedom of assembly [laughs] and never really thought that they would be a threat at any time.
I came in February. I realized that if change were to happen, it had to come at the hands of the young people. Sixty percent of the Egyptians are 30 and below. They are the ones who have no hidden agenda.
I really had very little trust in the so-called elite. These were people -- some of them have become corrupted by the regime, have become part of the regime. Many of the rest have become, again, sort of.… Fear has become so engrained in their souls, and they have families to care for, and they have seen that the regime has continued to be extremely repressive: torture, detentions, and so on. So there was a lot of culture of fear, at least for the middle-aged people who have families. [People] have lost hope, also, after 60 years. They despair that no matter what they do it won't change anything.
So between people who have been co-opted by the regime and people have been afraid and desperate, the only people left were really the young people and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are organized but have been subjected to the most cruel treatment for the last 30 years. University professors have been thrown into jail for no reason, except I think the regime has been using them [as part of] their act of deception with the West: You know, these are people who if they were ever to be allowed to take part in the political process they will turn Egypt into an Iran-style religious state or whatever form of religious extremism.
I didn't know any of the Muslim Brothers before; I'd never met one of them before I came here. They're a religiously conservative group, but they haven't been practicing any violence, at least for the last 50 years, and even before that, during the monarchy, it was for political reasons, not religious reasons. And they're not a majority. But they have credibility at least in the street because they were the ones providing social services when government was unable to do that: health care, food for the needy. And of course they had political space, quite open, because there were no organized parties who were able to counter them with their vision, whether social democrats, liberals, leftists, what have you. There were some parties, but they came out of the womb of the regime and had no influence and most of them had no credibility.
And, of course, as a result of 60 years of repression, people lost their ability to work together. There has been a culture of distrust. Completely. Nobody trusted anybody else, and [people were] unable to understand that rational thinking and not emotion is the way to go forward. [There's an] inability to work as a team. That's something which we still see today -- an inability to see that you need to work together, the synergy that comes with working together. These sort of values have been lost with a regime that has destroyed all the basic values that Egypt used to have.
FP: Are you hopeful that the youth groups will be able to organize a unified coalition?
MB: As I said, I said that in the last year my role was to explain to the young people -- these are the ones who see no future, no hope, no education, nothing that gives meaning to their lives. And when you saw them they were trying to emigrate illegally to New York and drown; then they tried again. Their lives have been reduced to zero. Basically they tried to find an alternative outside the country and died in the process.
My message to them is to try to make them feel that they are no different from other people, that they have all the tools, all the talents. The only thing missing is that they are able to organize and understand that our strength is in our numbers; that's one of the messages I kept sending to them through tweets, through meeting with them, and understanding that it's only through democracy that they will be able to change this whole system. Even their economic and social rights, the gateway to that is through them restoring the will of the people and not the will of the group of people who have continued to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of the country -- with rampant corruption, opaqueness, all that comes with an authoritarian system.
Twitter and Facebook were the media, and that was a part of it. We mobilized 1 million signatures. In this culture of fear, I tried to tell them that what we can do is through peaceful change and use our power as people by signing a petition basically saying we need to restore our humanity through free and fair elections, democracy. I called for boycotting the [parliamentary] elections, and I called for peaceful demonstrations if the regime doesn't listen to us. And in fact the regime did not listen whatsoever.