CAIRO, Egypt - It's do or die time for Egypt's opposition: They find themselves assailed by a hostile president, threatened by a draft constitution they don't believe protects basic human rights, and at risk of being sidelined from political life if they can't compete at the ballot box.
It's not that Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Egypt's unofficial opposition leader, doesn't know all that. But he believes something else, too -- that he finally has President Mohamed Morsy right where he wants him. In a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Policy at his home outside Cairo, ElBaradei described why the ruling Muslim Brotherhood was on its back foot, and slammed the United States for remaining silent in the face of the Islamist organization's growing autocratic tendencies.
"[Brotherhood officials] are using the same language of Mubarak -- stability. These guys are thugs. It's the same thing," he says. "At least by what you read, some of the [Brotherhood's] militias are killing some of these guys [in street clashes] -- they are using the same tactics. Except they have beards."
The interview came with Egypt in the midst of a referendum on a new draft constitution, which was primarily written by the Muslim Brotherhood and its hard-line allies, the Salafis. ElBaradei, who has tried to rally the "no" vote, says the document "confuses law and morality." Unofficial results from the first round of voting on Dec. 15 showed that 56.5 percent of Egyptians had voted in favor of the constitution -- but ElBaradei denounces those figures as the result of "massive falsification," claiming the "no" vote would have prevailed in a free and fair election.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, ElBaradei says, has a responsibility to condemn these abuses to avoid being complicit with an autocratic Egyptian regime.
"Particularly in the U.S., frankly, what you see is a very muted reaction," he says. "People here are very disappointed... they want the Americans, and everybody else, to put their money with their mouth is. And that's not happening."
ElBaradei evokes Yogi Berra to describe U.S. policy on Egypt: It reminded him, he said, of "déjà vu, all over again" -- a throwback to when the United States would give the Mubarak regime a free pass on human rights as long as it protected Washington's regional interests. The opposition has compiled evidence that some of the judges overseeing the process were impostors and that Christians were turned away from polling stations. However, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland avoided presenting an opinion on the alleged irregularities at a Dec. 17 press briefing, saying only that the United States is "not going to opine" until the process is concluded.
"Yes, [Morsy] was democratically elected," ElBaradei says. "But does that give him the right to turn himself into a dictator?"