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."