INTERVIEW: ElBaradei on quiet revolution, reform tactics, and religion

Mohamed ElBaradei has chosen an interesting time to re-enter the Egyptian political arena. After his calls for a parliamentary election boycott were ignored by the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal opposition Wafd Party, ElBaradei watched from overseas as both ended up withdrawing from the election in protest of rampant voting irregularities.

Within a week of the final vote, ElBaradei posted a 12-minute internet statement containing some of his harshest words yet against the regime–saying that the elections were conclusive proof that there was no hope for reform from within the system.

In an hour-long interview, at his home outside Cairo, ElBaradei only mentioned President Mubarak by name one time. But he made clear his view that Mubarak’s government is basically unfixable and proposed his recipe for a transitional post-Mubarak period. He also addressed frequent criticisms that he travels too often and is reluctant to personally take to the streets.

He also had a potentially unpopular message for his supporters: the process of change will be long, and gradual–and Egypt might be years away from any sort of a turning point. He warned his loyalists to stop viewing him as the one-man solution to Egypt’s problems. As ElBaradei said, “If you are waiting for a horseman on a white horse, the bad news is he’s not coming.”

Al-Masry Al-Youm: How would you characterize the mood of the country following the recent Parliamentary elections?

Mohamed ElBaradei: Well, I never took these elections seriously to start with. But of course I never expected this.

Even if you want to rig the elections, at least be intelligent about it. If you want to put on a masquerade of democracy, at least get 60, 70 or 80 opposition [parliamentarians]. At least make it look for the uninitiated like a country on its way forward.

I really doubt those who are in charge, how intelligent they are. To get a parliament where 3 percent is the opposition is laughable inside the country and makes everybody laugh at us.

Whether it got out of their control, I don’t know, whether they didn’t manage the rigging the way they wanted to. At the end of the day anybody here has sort of lost hope that this regime is ever going to move in a common sense direction toward a parliament, toward a system that’s functioning–balance of power between the different branches of government etc.

Have you ever seen in any democracy the president appointing one-third of the upper house? Have you ever seen ministers in a presidential system running for the legislature?

The only way you can describe it is as a police system. Law has lost its meaning. The judicial branch has lost its meaning. Rulings are not implemented by the courts. What they don’t understand is that at some point there will be a tipping point. Yes the Egyptians are patient people, but there is a tipping point.

If I look at the big picture, my greatest worry is increasing radicalization. Egypt is the epicenter of the Arab world. It has always been a locomotive for change–either modernity and moderation or extremism. And what we’re seeing right now is the extremism.

Go on the street and look at people. You see it in the way they look at the religion, the way they distort religion. You see it in the tensions between the Copts and the Muslims. This is a totally different Egypt that is the result of 58 years of authoritarian systems.

When you see people now called Salafiyeen [Salafis]–just things we’ve never heard of before. You see people wearing niqab, not just covering their hair but their whole face.

Al-Masry: I remember moving to Egypt in 1997 and you almost never saw a woman wearing the niqab.

ElBaradei: 50 years ago, it never existed. But let’s be clear: that’s not the problem. But it’s symptomatic of people trying to find refuge in religion. They’ve lost their identity with the state. They’ve lost their identity as citizens because they have been treated as slaves. They’ve been treated as subjects–objects really. They have been stripped of all their basic human rights. They are unable to–42 percent of them–to have food on the table.

They feel a sense of marginalization. They feel a sense of hopelessness. They feel that there is no future. So you have a growing sense of frustration, and that leads to radicalism.

The writing is on the wall in my view. Sooner or later, this whole region will become more radicalized. A couple days ago we saw what happened in Stockholm. We have seen 9-11, we have seen the bombing of the Metro in London.

That’s what people don’t understand in the West–that this is not stability. What we see here reminds me of exactly what happened in Iran during the Shah’s time. If you want an explosion, continue to support repressive regimes.

Al-Masry: What did you think of the international reaction to the elections?

ElBaradei: You see the European Union say, “We regret the loss of life,” but at the end of the statement saying, “Egypt is an important partner.”

You see the [US] State Department say they are “dismayed.” Well, I’m frankly dismayed about their dismay. A country is being stripped of its soul–which is what the legislature is.

And then compare that to the reaction to the Iranian elections; compare that to the election in Burma. Compare that to the reaction to [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe.

I’m not saying the West has to impose its version of democracy. I’m not saying they’re the one who are going to change Egypt or shift it from a police state to a democracy. But these are human values. If you want to have credibility, you have to be consistent. You cannot say “The Iranian election has been terrible” just because you don’t like Ahmedinejad. The message you are sending to the people here is that you’re full of hot air.

Al-Masry: You warn of that in your most recent video.

ElBaradei: Stability will never come until you get a democratic system. Democracy is not just a luxury; democracy is the only way to get stability, moderation, modernity and social justice.

What I see right now (from the West) is something terrible. It’s the idea that I care about democracy, but only within my own borders.

It’s similar to Israel; they have a functioning democracy but only for the Jewish people. I don’t want to see the West applying the same standard. Because then you are perpetuating the ‘us vs. them’ mentality, and that some lives are more valuable than other lives.

Al-Masry: How do you propose to put this frustration into action? What’s next for the National Association of Change and what’s next for your goals here?

ElBaradei: What’s next for me is what’s next for the Egyptian people. It’s partly a process of explaining to them what our goal is, what we should be aiming at–explaining what does democracy mean.

I talk to a lot of people who don’t even know what democracy really is. They think it’s just political freedoms and no responsibilities.

People here never actually practice politics; they talk about the political solution. There’s no politics in Egypt. You have one police state for 58 years and you have objects.

People are starting to realize that “Yes we can make a difference. Yes we can stand up and be counted.” And you see that most in the young people. I care the most about the young people because they’re the ones that have their future ahead of them.

The so-called elite, I don’t like to even call them that–most of them have been co-opted by the system and become beneficiaries of the system. Or they’ve become afraid because they’ve got their petty little perks and they don’t want to lose them if they speak up.

And of course the regime reinforces that because if anyone of them speaks up, they make their life difficult–starting from the rich businessman down to the university professor and so on.

This sent a clear message that you cannot work within the system to reform the system. That’s what I discovered from day one. That’s why I said “Forget working within the system.” You have to work with unconventional means. You have to work by mobilizing the people.

The regime was very happy to get everybody to work within this fake system, because it’s going nowhere. It’s going in circles.

You need to get outside the system and understand that this is not a political system. This is a system that has failed. Egypt has become one of the 60 failed states.

I know Egyptians are afraid, I know Egyptians are totally confused as to what they really want and what the alternative is. This was always the sentence used by the regime: “What is the alternative?”

They tried to make the West believe that the only alternative is the Muslim Brotherhood–which is the devil incarnate.

Al-Masry: They use that both externally and internally as well.

ElBaradei: Yes, they do.

I have lots of ideological disagreements with the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only alternative in Egypt, nor is it the majority of Egyptians.

They are part of Egypt and you have to deal with them. They are part of the government and you have to deal with everybody.

Everybody in every state has ownership. There is only one real red line: every Egyptian–Muslim, Copt, woman, man, young and old–they have to have the same rights and the same obligations. There are basic values that everybody needs to respect.

But anyway, that’s what they have told the people: this is the alternative we have. But I tell them three things. One, that you can not work within this system. We really need a new beginning. Two, that there are alternatives. And three, that there is a way out. And the way out is something that should not scare them. Sign a petition and say, “I want a free and fair election and I want a constitution that is democratic. Every additional signature that we get adds to the legitimacy of the people and takes away from the legitimacy of the regime. I said also that you have to boycott the elections. I compare it to a bunch of sheep heading to the slaughterhouse. And even before the elections, every one of them said, “This is a slaughterhouse.”

Al-Masry: Do you understand why the Brotherhood ran strategically? Do you think it was a mistake?

ElBaradei: From my perspective I think it was a mistake. But they have their own reasons. I think they wanted to continue to be visible on the political scene. After 80 years of struggling and seeing 10,000 members jailed over the years, I can understand that.

But I can’t understand the other parties. Why is the liberal Wafd Party or any other party (participating). They made the same demands I did, and the government said, “Go away. We’re not listening to you.” How do you justify going into the election that you know is going to be rigged. I’m still quite baffled by it.

However, let us look forward. We need to learn from our mistakes. If we had learned from our mistakes we would not have a regime that has been perpetuated for 30 years.

So my message is: sign the petition. Go into peaceful demonstrations, which is your basic right. And if the regime does not respond to what you are doing, then unite as opposition.

These are the things we have available to press for peaceful change. The regime is not leaving any wiggle room for peaceful change. And this way, you are risking an explosion.

People don’t understand why they need to sign the petition. You have to explain to them that if you sign this, you will get back your basic rights and freedoms and if you get back you rights and freedoms, you will get food and health care.

But they are afraid. Even the Egyptian abroad are afraid. They will tell you that if I sign this petition–which basically says I want to be a human being–then they will stop me at the airport.

There is a culture of fear that we have to continue to chip away at. And that is happening. The fact that we have almost a million signatures is a miracle to me.

Al-Masry: Is the signature drive continuing?

ElBaradei: It is continuing, and it will continue, and I think after the elections, it will accelerate. I’m telling them again, it’s your right to go into the street. But still, in any demonstration, you see 500 people and 3000 (riot police).

I went once to a demonstration for Khaled Saeed, the young man in Alexandria who was slaughtered. It was the first time I’ve seen all this central security. It was like a war zone. It was an amazing scene to me to realize how repressive and how much of a police state we have become. It was Orwellian.

Compare that with Thailand, where there are some of the most refined people I find. In one day, there were 1 million people in the street.

At one point, the Egyptian needs to understand that we need to exercise our rights. I keep saying, “Our strength is in our numbers.” I keep saying, “Help me to help you.” I keep saying, “I am not the messiah.”

Al-Masry: That’s something I want to ask you about.

ElBaradei: I keep, if you like, dampening their expectations. If you are waiting for a horseman on a white horse, the bad news is he’s not coming.

Al-Masry: Do you think people have unfair expectations of you? It’s so easy to hear people say they’re disappointed–that you travel too often, that you’re not leading the charge against the Central Security.

ElBaradei: I get all that. I feel that they just don’t get it yet. I think gradually they are getting it.

If I hit my head against the wall, my head will break. If all the Egyptians hit their heads against the wall, then the wall will break.

I know how desperately they want a change, but I have to be honest and credible. If I have 10 million signatures on the petition, then I have a different platform. I won’t even need to speak to the regime because I’ll have a mandate.

I know that when I call for a demonstration, I’ll see a quarter of a million people. We still need to mobilize the people.

Lots of people say that I’m not here all the time. There are 100 different reasons why I’m not here all the time. My platform is the media and my contacts and credibility and visibility. For me this is outside the country. I get media here in Egypt, but it’s mostly foreign media. I get much more media and I get much more access when I am abroad.

Al-Masry: Do you feel that there’s any credence to that criticism at all?

ElBaradei: Part of it is to send the message that change is not dependent on one person. Whether I’m here or not, you know what you have to do. You have to gather signatures; you have to agitate on the streets.

People say I need to go into the demonstrations. I made it very clear I will not go into a demonstration of 500 people. If you consider me a symbol of change, you have to keep a certain aura about that symbol.

So if I see 100,000 people in the streets, yes I will be with you. But I’m not going to go into a demonstration of 50 people. It’s a question of strategy, and it’s a question of tactics.

I have a lot of obligations. I’m finishing up a book that is already being sold on Amazon. I was in Mauritius talking about African integration. I was with ten Nobel laureates in Hiroshima talking about nuclear disarmament, which is of clear interest to this region.

I think they’ve started to get it, that change is not going to happen just while I’m here, sitting in this gated community. And being away does not change what everybody needs to do.

Al-Masry: What are your immediate plans?

ElBaradei: What I’m trying now to do is to get all the scattered opposition united. We can’t afford the luxury of people from the left fighting with the right, from the socialists fighting with the Muslim Brotherhood, with the Copts fighting with the Muslims.

Al-Masry: You’ve used Facebook and Twitter and YouTube to get your message out.

ElBaradei: There’s still a limit to the internet. Television is the greatest power. I think it’s fantastic. The bottom line is that they cannot keep you silent no matter how the regime is oppressive or Orwellian.

You can sit on your computer and you can tweet and the next day it’s everywhere in the world. I never knew anything about Twitter before.

Al-Masry: Are you doing it yourself?

 ElBaradei: (laughs) My wife actually sends them out, especially in Arabic. We sit together. It has become a lot of fun and you can say a lot in 140 characters.

You mentioned my last video. People know I’m almost banned from local media, so that more than 150,000 people have watched the last video.

You can get your message across in so many different ways. And you become geographically irrelevant. I tweeted from Hiroshima, I tweeted from Rio De Janero. Last month, I tweeted from Mauritius.

That’s the great thing about technology. And that’s why people have started to understand that it’s not my physical presence that’s necessary.

Al-Masry: So what do you think the short-term future holds for Egypt?

ElBaradei: It’s a black box, I don’t know.

I’m quite optimistic about the young people. They come here in waves—I’m sure my neighbors aren’t thrilled. They’re chipping away at the regime and they’re mobilizing people.

I think what we really need in Egypt is a transitional period. We need a couple of years of transition, where we have to have a new constitution (drafted by) a properly elected body. And then have a new presidential elections and a new assembly that is really truly representative of the people, and then we go.

Al-Masry: A transitional period led by whom?

ElBaradei: It really doesn’t matter who is leading it, as long as we know this is a transitional period and we know exactly what everybody’s assignment is.

If we have a real constitution and a proper parliament, then the question of who is the president is really irrelevant. People always ask, ‘Is it Mubarak or his son that’s going to run?’ I say that it doesn’t matter who governs. It matters how they govern.

People are becoming surer of themselves and shedding fear. I believe that they’re starting to understand that you need a complete overhaul of the system.

Whether it will take six months, whether it will take two years, it will come. We have reached, in my view, rock-bottom, both domestically and internationally.

Al-Masry: Do you think the answer is more signatures? More street action? In your video, you repeatedly called for mass civil disobedience.

ElBaradei: Ideally the regime will get the message if we get more signatures. It all has to work together.

We need more signatures. We need more people to exercise their basic right for demonstrations in the street. If these two things do not work, then the answer is peaceful civil disobedience. I don’t see how we can change in the context of a regime that locked the door for working from within after the elections.

We need to work together and we need to set aside emotions and work in a rational way. Nations do not change quickly. It’s not instant coffee but it will happen.

Al-Masry: What’s the status of the NAC right now?

ElBaradei: A lot of people misunderstood that. The NAC is a framework. Everybody who signed the petition is a member of the NAC. So we have 1 million members. There is an ad hoc management, but I’m keeping a distance from every movement. I’m with them, but I’m not part of any structure.

I generate ideas, and I act as a symbol. If they want me to play another role, I’m willing.

I hope in the next phase we will have a united opposition, the NAC, the Wafd party, the Brotherhood, the Gabha[The Democratic Front party]–we need everyone. And of course we need to link the young people with the labor unions and the elite with the young people.

Everybody needs to coalesce because we have to do some heavy lifting. We are facing a regime that is on its last legs in my view and we have to do some heavy lifting to change after six decades. It’s not an easy task.

Al-Masry: How long are you here for this time?

ElBaradei: I’ll leave again for a trip in January. I’ll be here as much as I can, this is home. Right now, what’s happening here is my main focus. This year is going to be crucial, and we need to make sure we are moving in the right direction.

Al-Masry: Let me ask a chicken-and-egg question. You mentioned leading protests from the front, saying you want to see the numbers get up to 10,000. Maybe if you go and they know you’re going to be there next week and the week after, then it will build up around you.

ElBaradei: It’s a good point, but you have to be careful of Egyptian culture. I don’t want to replace a one-person regime with another one-person regime. I’m trying to convert Egypt into institutions.

But I did attend that Alexandria protest I mentioned.

Al-Masry: I was there in that protest and I don’t feel like you looked comfortable in a big crowd. Is that a fair thing to say?

ElBaradei: Well it’s something new to me. Anything you do the first time is new to you.

I’m very comfortable talking about my issues, but when addressing a live crowd like that it’s a different tone; it’s a different language.

You saw my last video for example; I feel I’ve improved.

Al-Masry: You sounded pissed off in the video.

ElBaradei: I was! My wife said I’m at my best when I’m angry.

But yes, maybe I felt uncomfortable (in Alexandria). It’s a sense of sadness; why do we need all this just to try to live like normal human beings?

Al-Masry: You’ve made frequent mention of Muslim-Christian relations here. What do you think is happening?

ElBaradei: It’s symptomatic of a society that’s decaying. It’s an expression of frustration and it’s manifesting itself into a religious clash.

These are all symptoms of a society that has not yet reached a modus vivendi of how to live together and respect each other.

In homogenous societies, anything that’s different is a threat to them and they try to oppress it. What do you see now? We are fighting over the right of Christians to build a church. How low can you get? To fight over anybody’s right to build a house of God, it’s very symptomatic.

As I said they’ve tried to paint me as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. But I would like one day to see Egypt governed by a Christian woman.

It all goes back to democracy. We need to be capable of addressing issues in openness and frankness in a peaceful way and through a proper system that respects the majority but protects the minority.

The thing I fear sometimes is the tyranny of the majority. You have to have a proper judiciary and you have to have checks and balances.

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