Interview

'These Guys Are Thugs'

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei speaks exclusively to Foreign Policy on the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's political crisis.

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?"

Even if the opposition does not succeed in defeating the constitution, they have achieved some political momentum by capturing more than 40 percent of the vote in the first round and organizing a majority "no" vote in the capital of Cairo. ElBaradei attributes these gains to Morsy's missteps -- notably, issuing a constitutional decree that gave him sweeping powers.

"People ... are voting against a group that they feel is power-grabbing, and they haven't delivered on any of the issues that 90 percent of the issues Egyptians care about," he says. "Food on the table, health care, education, housing -- and they haven't seen it. Where is the beef?"

But the most contentious issue is the draft constitution, whose contents remain a source of dispute despite the fact that it is publicly available to anyone who wishes to read it. The Brotherhood hails it as "the greatest constitution Egypt has ever known," and a product of consensus, while opposition figures and groups like Human Rights Watch have decried its vague language and the lack of protection it offers for human rights, particularly for women.

For ElBaradei, however, the constitution's main hazard is that it fails to find a common ground between Egypt's many different groups -- thereby ensuring future instability. The opposition coalition called for protests on Dec. 18 and more judges joined a boycott of the referendum, throwing the process further into flux.

Instead of pushing through a constitution with a narrow majority, ElBaradei argues, the Muslim Brotherhood should have attempted to build consensus around a set of principles that all Egyptians hold in common. It's an area where U.S. democracy can offer some guidance: "People from the Tea Party to the ACLU believe in the Bill of Rights," he notes.

There is one more opportunity on the horizon for ElBaradei and his allies to chip away the Muslim Brotherhood's dominance: Parliamentary elections will be held in two months should the constitution pass. The question now is whether the opposition can build on its organization in time for that vote -- and do more than claim a moral victory.

"It's a great challenge ... a lot of it is management, a lot of it is structure, how to reach the grassroots, how to get the money," ElBaradei says. Asked whether he believes the opposition can take a majority, he appropriates a line from a campaign past: "Yes we can, as they say, yes we can."

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Interview

The Case Against Benjamin Netanyahu

Ehud Olmert may decide not to run against Benjamin Netanyahu this time around. But either way, he’s betting that crossing an American president will have political consequences in Israel.

Ehud Olmert is running. Or maybe he's not. He insists he'll only make an announcement about his political future on Israeli soil, though he seems to take great pleasure in dropping hints. Either way, the former Israeli prime minister had a two-pronged message on this weekend's trip to America: Benjamin Netanyahu can be beaten in the upcoming elections in January. And peace with the Palestinians is still possible.

Coming just after the Netanyahu government announced it would build move forward on new settlements that the New York Times described as "effectively dooming any prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," and at a time when optimism in Washington about the Middle East writ large is at a deserved low, it's an alluring message. The conventional wisdom here has it that President Barack Obama needs to find a way to work with Bibi in his second term, because, difficult and disrespectful as the Israeli leader might be, he's not going anywhere.

Olmert offers the tantalizing possibility that maybe, just maybe, it doesn't have to be this way.

I caught up with the former prime minister on the sidelines of the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum, a largely off-the-record confab packed with high-level U.S. and Israeli officials, think tankers, and other assorted muckety-mucks. He was traveling light, as top Israelis often do -- with no entourage other than a security detail that seemed unusually relaxed.

The night before, Olmert had just held a public "conversation" with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, where he had scathing words for Netanyahu, his successor and former colleague in the Likud Party. Israel's settlement announcement, coming on the heels of a vote in which the United States was just one of nine opponents of Palestinian observer status, was the "worst possible slap in the face to the president," Olmert said.

The former prime minister also had strong words for Netanyahu's chief backer Sheldon Adelson, whom he said had "bought the political system" in Israel and "thought he could do the same thing in America with $100 million." Specifically, Olmert described his discomfort with a fundraiser Mitt Romney held in Israel with Jewish-American donors, including Adelson,  who may have actually spent as much as $150 million in support of Republican candidates. It "smelled of something which was not appropriate," Olmert said. "I thought it was made in order to create the impression among American Jewish voters that Romney is riding on the shoulders of Israel to the White House, which I thought was a mistake. And the prime minister took part in this effort, which was totally unacceptable."

Olmert even broke the Saban Forum's ground rules by revealing that earlier on Saturday, Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had ripped into Netanyahu off the record for betting against the president's re-election -- a view he suggested was shared in the Oval Office. "I don't know how friendly Rahm Emanuel is with the president but I think he supports him," Olmert joked. "If he said what he said, probably he reflected a sentiment which may not be only his private sentiment, but something that many other people share with him."

But Olmert's real beef with Netanyahu -- the real reason he must go -- is that he is "not dedictated to the pursuit of peace in a realistic way," a mission he described as the "primary responsibility of every Israeli government." Once a hard-line mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert has now embraced the peace process with the passion of a convert, almost leaping out of his chair and gesturing emphatically at one point to exclaim, "What the party will reject, the people will accept!"

Olmert also worries that Netanyahu talks too much about Iran. "I think that Iran is a genuine problem -- enough to justify policies, and measures, and statements by Israel," he told me. "The question is whether we don't talk too much about it, we don't make it too much of a public issue, we don't create an unnecessary international debate that raises the profile of this, and perhaps prevent some countries from taking measures which they may have wanted to take but they don't want to be seen as Israel sort of giving orders, public orders to them."

As it happens, the qualities Olmert says Israelis are looking for in a challenger seem to describe Olmert himself (or perhaps Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister and Mossad veteran who is definitely running in January). "Experience in taking decisions on matters of national importance: matters of security and matters of defense and matters of potential national crisis, in the context of international relations, particularly with the United States of America, which is the greatest ally Israel has," he told me, noting, in case I didn't get the message, "And relations with America and with the American president are of great significance to Israeli voters."

But it seems to me, I replied, that Netanyahu had yet to pay any political price for that tension. "Well, you know, for the time being," he said archly.