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
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
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.
FP: Do you think
they're listening now?
absolutely. Unfortunately, what you see now with the regime saying "these are
legitimate rights" -- the right for people to run for election, judicial
supervision, the need to abolish the emergency law -- unfortunately, they only
started to listen when people went to the street.
And of course, all of a sudden, even the Muslim Brotherhood,
who had been banned, were invited to be part of the political process. So, they
have no shame. They have no shame. For a year, they didn't even want to discuss
one single.… Their reaction was complete defiance, complete fear[mongering]
because they have no argument to make, and all they have done is [launch] a
Goebbels-like propaganda machine against me -- you know, that I'm coming with
every foreign agenda that they can think of.
FP: You're an Israeli-Iranian
Israeli-Iranian agent, American agent, anti-Islam, pro-Muslim extremist --
everything you can think of -- without even discussing one single issue like
why can't we have guarantees for a free and fair election, why can't we have
the right to establish parties, freedom of the press, all the stuff which is
common sense. But they were not [discussing that] because they know that change
will mean their demise. [There's a] military mentality, security mentality that
has been going on for 60 years and going from bad to worse.
When you read yesterday in Voice of America that Mubarak's
fortune is $70 billion, and this is coming from the Voice of America, and when
you see four or five Egyptians on Forbes
richest-people list in a country where the per capita income is $1,200, and at
least 40 percent of people live on less than $2 a day, around 30 percent of
people are illiterate, when Egypt is classified as a failed state.… I mean we
are rock bottom in every indicator of human development.
That is the situation. They were really making fun of social
media, saying, "These are the guys of the virtual world" --
FP: They're not
laughing now --
MB: Yeah, and
communications on social networks turned into a physical presence on the
streets. Nobody -- including those who organized this demonstration on the 25th,
28th; now it's becoming like a snowball -- nobody expected it, not even the
ones who were administering these Facebook pages, of course including myself.
Nobody expected the numbers. The largest demonstration -- which took place when
this guy who got tortured and killed, Khaled Said, and I called for a moment of
silence in Alexandria -- it was 4,000 people, and this was supposed to be a
Then we saw this avalanche.
FP: So what was
the difference between the demonstration in Alexandria and January 25?
MB: I think people
started to gradually get self-confidence, realize that we would sacrifice our
lives because our lives have no meaning; we are ready to take risks because
other than that we are doomed. There was a tipping point. Nobody saw that
tipping point coming. But I think it's an accumulation of 60 years of
repression and torture. Torture has become common practice, the disappearance
So why did the tipping point on that date? Why the tipping
point in Tunisia when a guy sets himself on fire? Nobody could know; it just
happened. It's not surprising that it happened, but did anybody expect that it
would happen on that day and continue with such intensity? Nobody could read
that. But of course, I knew, and in my tweets a few months ago I said that this
year is going to be a decisive year. But I didn't know in what way, although I
saw the cloud coming. I saw the anger; I saw the sense of humiliation, the lack
of hope, lack of dignity.
A couple of months ago I went to a wake, and I was looking
at people sitting in front of me. I told my brother, "I look in the eyes of
these people and they're dead. Dead souls. They lost every inch or iota of
humanity, dignity, sense of freedom, sense of confidence -- everything was
I went to Tahrir Square last week and you see different
people. You see people for the first time feeling they are free. They don't
know what to do with this freedom, but the joy of feeling free, the joy of
feeling proud, the joy of having confidence that we managed to essentially destroy
this regime that has been entrenched for 60 years, a military dictatorship,
it's melting away, and they saw the regime grudgingly making one concession after
FP: But so far
there have been no fundamental concessions.
MB: So far, I
think the whole process is a faulty process. You don't get the fox to be in
charge of the chicken coop. You don't give the outgoing regime -- which has
been practicing dictatorship, is an authoritarian system, it's a bunch of
military people -- the task of changing Egypt into a second republic, a new
Egypt with democracy, freedom, rights, etc.
I don't think they even understand what it means to be a
democracy. As you heard Omar Suleiman saying, "We don't have the culture [of
FP: So you don't
have any confidence that he can be the steward of a democratic transition?
MB: No. I don't
have any confidence. The process is completely faulty, the way I see it. They
don't understand, let alone are willing to move Egypt into democracy, unless we
keep kicking their behinds.
And that's what happened. You saw Mubarak's first statement
was saying, "We'll give you a new government" -- same old, worn-out tactics. A
new government but no change of policy and the same people from his own party.
They were kicked out and they said they would change the Constitution to allow
more people to run. They got kicked out again and then they would say, "Well,
Mubarak will not run." Then they abolished the whole leadership of the party.
It is not the sign of a regime, or whatever's left of it,
that is ready to buy into real change. They are talking, again, to the
established parties who have no influence, have no credibility in the street,
most of them. The people who staged that revolution are not sitting around the
table. The young people are not sitting around the table.
FP: What would
your advice be to the young people in Tahrir Square? What do you tell them when
you meet with them? To stay there until their demands are met?
MB: Yes, of
course. I tell them that we have to keep pushing, we have to keep pushing until
the demands are met. The first demand I think, and it's becoming almost an
obsession, is for Mubarak to go. And that is, it's an emotional issue. But
people understand that the regime is Mubarak, it's one person. And the
departure of Mubarak will signal that we are ushered into a new Egypt. I think
this is nonnegotiable. I don't think they will leave the street. And it's not
only Tahrir; [it's] everywhere else. This has become the No. 1 demand. And the
demand, of course, that they take charge of this process; it's the incoming
regime who should take charge of the transitional period and not the outgoing
regime. There is a huge issue of credibility. There is no credibility in either
Mubarak or Suleiman or anybody who is associated with that regime.
It's an opaque process; it's a monologue; it's not a
dialogue. And they still think they are in power while everybody knows they are
completely weak and the regime is melting away.
So, my advice now to the young people and others is that we
need to take charge of this transitional period of a year, and I am suggesting
a presidential council of three people, a transitional government of national
salvation, national unity under a caretaker government of people who have
sterling reputations, have experience, and then prepare the country for free
and fair elections. Abolish this Constitution, which is not worth the paper
it's written on. Abolish the rigged parliament. We have to go through whatever
you call it, popular legitimacy, revolutionary legitimacy.
Unfortunately, this is the only way out to build up again
the pillars [of democracy]: a new constitution which is really democratic, with
a president who has checks and balances [on him], limited power, a true
parliament that has the power of the purse and oversight, an independent
judiciary -- all that comes with any democratic system.
But I don't think that process is working. Unfortunately,
again, many of the Western countries including the United States have been
continuing to provide life support to [Mubarak]…
FP: Let's talk
about the United States for a minute. You've been critical of Obama for not
calling for Mubarak to leave; you said it was a "farce" that he hadn't.
MB: And the same
with many other Western countries. Events have gone so fast, you know, nobody
predicted.… It's like the 1979 Iranian Revolution in that things took everybody
by surprise, including us even. And they had to adjust their policy every half-hour. As you remember, it started with Hillary Clinton saying, "We assess that
the government of Egypt is stable." I took issue with that on CNN; I said she
must have a different definition of stability than I do -- stability meaning
Anyway, she changed her position a couple of days afterward
and said, "We now listen to the aspirations of the Egyptian people"; Obama said,
"I hear you young people" and "the transition should begin right now."
Basically, he said in a diplomatic way, "Mubarak, you need to listen and go."
Mubarak was told by everybody, in every language, in every
different way of putting it: "You need to go." And for some reason, he's still
FP: Well now it
seems the United States has decided that it wants to see Omar Suleiman preside
over this transition process that you don't have any confidence in --
MB: Correct. Frank Wisner, who was sent here and
was a friend of Mubarak and works for a lobbying firm for the regime, said
Mubarak must stay. Luckily, the United States said he only represents himself,
but I was told there are many other Wisners in Washington, saying, "Well, he
was our ally, providing stability" -- which of course, if you are here, you see
that he hasn't provided anything but increasing the trend of radicalization in
Egypt. The repression, and sense of marginalization, is leading into
radicalization. People lost their identification with the state and tried to
wrap themselves around a distorted form of religion, many of them.
It was a ticking bomb. It was a ticking bomb ready to
explode. I knew that, but when it was going to explode, nobody knew. They were
still operating under the fiction that Egypt will turn into chaos when Mubarak
leaves. Well, of course that's damnation of a dictatorship because [in a
democracy] people come and go and there shouldn't be any instability.… Secondly,
the Muslim Brotherhood are a bogeyman [that will take over the country]. And
third, that immediately Egypt will go into full opposition against the United
States and declare war on Israel and abolish the peace treaty.
All these are fictions. A lot of the sentiments of the
people are not going to change. The fact that they support the Palestinian
issue, the fact that they need to see a Palestinian state, they feel that there
are double standards that are applied to the Middle East, in Palestine and Iraq
and Afghanistan -- this is not going to change.
But if you have a democracy, you will then be able to have a
government representative of the people and be able to have peace. It will be a
durable peace. What Israel doesn't understand is that, yes, they have peace, but
it's a pseudo-peace. Talk to any Egyptian; where is the interaction between
people? There will be peace when we have peace between the Israeli and the
Egyptian people. And of course, it takes two to tango, or three, with the
Anyway, these foreign-policy issues, regional issues, are
not going to change because of democracy. In fact, democracy will enable a
meaningful dialogue on behalf of the Egyptian people, a different narrative,
different values based on moderation and modernity and not what you see now:
extremism and hype and lack of understanding. And the regime is perpetuating
you worry that if the regime is able to crush the protest movement, that you'll
see a further radicalization of the country?
absolutely. I think if they try to do that.… I mean, now it's the whole of Egypt
going out. Tomorrow you'll probably see something like 10 million people. It's
the entire country of Egypt that is going out. If you try to crush them, you
will then get into a bloody revolution. As JFK said, if you crush a peaceful
revolution you will get a bloody revolution.
There's no going back. That is clear and has to be clear. My
message is that the West now has to be very clear that they are siding with the
people. They are not the ones who are going to change the system, but they have
to understand that what's at stake are universal values. And if they want to
solve it -- and whatever trust they have here is very little, not only in Egypt
but the rest of the Arab world -- they have to show that they mean what they say
when they talk about democracy, human rights, rule of law, what have you, and
not continue to try to have a balancing act, you know, that maybe we can try to
give it to Mubarak and Co. to manage that, or maybe again Suleiman.
I mean, as a person people could respect him, but he is not
going to … he doesn't have the trust or the understanding of what needs to be
done. And they [the West] have to get the process of change in the hands of the
people who staged the revolution: work with them, help them, and provide
advice, but don't be perceived as hanging on to a dictator who has pulverized
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