The former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency has refused to sink quietly into retirement and is battling to bring democracy to his home country of Egypt.
When Mohamed ElBaradei stepped down from his role as the UN’s nuclear weapons watchdog in November 2009, most observers expected the 68-year-old to withdraw from the international scene and enjoy retirement. His 12 years at the helm of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were hardly quiet ones: from September 11 to the build-up and outbreak of the Iraq war, and nuclear proliferation in Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, ElBaradei found himself at the centre of many global crises – and he made powerful enemies along the way.
As an eloquent campaigner for nuclear disarmament and a staunch opponent of George W Bush’s war in the Gulf, ElBaradei attracted the ire of America’s political establishment and survived several attempts by the US administration to force him from his position. In 2005, however, he was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech he said: “If we hope to escape self-destruction, then nuclear weapons should have no place in our collective conscience, and no role in our security.”
But as his work with the IAEA came to an end, another battle loomed: a return to his native Egypt and a challenge to the three-decade rule of President Hosni Mubarak, one of the most entrenched autocrats in the Middle East. On landing at Cairo airport in February 2010, ElBaradei was met by thousands of Egyptians urging him to bring an end to the Mubarak regime and he threw himself into action, forming a coalition of opposition forces and launching a nationwide petition demanding drastic political reforms.
Although his presence initially galvanised disparate dissident groups, momentum faded as the Egyptian state launched a series of attacks on his character and clamped down on all opposition voices. With Mubarak now 82 and likely to step down ahead of presidential elections later this year, the ruling elite is keen to take no chances ahead of a volatile transition at the top. ElBaradei, who has said he will consider running for president if conditions are free and fair, has not given up the struggle for change although some former supporters have accused him of spending too little time in Egypt and failing to build a broad-based opposition. He spoke to Monocle about his hopes and fears for Egypt.
Monocle: Egypt is the oldest unified state on earth and the most populous nation in the Arab world. What challenges does the country face?
Mohamed ElBaradei: Egypt is a one-party state and authoritarian dictatorship. There’s a link between lack of good governance and poverty – marginalisation, radicalism, violence and social decay. In the 1940s and 1950s this country was at the forefront of the region; other nations looked to us as a model of moderation, tolerance and culture. That has gone. On many criteria, Egypt is a failed state: rock bottom on transparency, corruption and human development. Forty per cent of our population live on less than $2 [€1.51] a day.
M: Egypt’s major opposition groups ignored your calls for a boycott of the recent parliamentary elections and emerged with almost no representation in the legislature. Did you feel vindicated?
MEB: What good does it do to feel vindicated? I called on everybody not to get involved with this charade, because even if the election had been transparent, the whole structure would have inevitably led to a parliament that was not representative of the people. The whole thing has nothing to do with democracy. You don’t go like sheep into a slaughterhouse and then complain that you got slaughtered.
M: So you want to work outside the system to achieve change?
MEB: People are desperate and anxious for change to happen overnight. It won’t – unless people mobilise and understand how to go about it. We’re dealing with a police state and it doesn’t require rocket science to work out that you cannot really work within so-called “institutions”. They are not institutions, they are laws designed to perpetuate an authoritarian system. If you look at the experience of other countries, you see that to change a system similar to that which existed in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union you have to work outside it and through unconventional means. We need united opposition in numbers.
M: But what does that mean in practical terms? You’ve publicly warned the Mubarak regime that there will be violence on the streets if it continues suppressing peaceful avenues for dissent.
MEB: My fear is that we will reach a tipping point, and I see that approaching. People say the Egyptians are patient but you go around the streets of Cairo and you’ll see that tipping point coming. So first of all we need a mandate for demanding change. But that does take time; we have a background of 58 years of repression and dictatorship under three different rulers, where everybody from the Marxists to the Muslim Brotherhood have been excluded. And if the regime doesn’t listen we need to go to the streets and agitate, through peaceful demonstrations.
M: What about the attitude of the West towards Egypt and its continued support for the Mubarak government?
MEB: When I see statements by the High Representative of the European Union and by the US State Department refusing to condemn the conduct of the Egyptian government in these elections, I feel disappointed. The West is losing every ounce of credibility when it comes to convincing people here that it is serious about their basic values: democracy, freedom, justice, rule of law. That fuels extremism. The West doesn’t realise that stability is not based on short-sighted security measures – stability will only come when people are empowered, when people are able to participate.
M: Are you confident of succeeding?
MEB: I am starting a process. Up to now we’ve been all emotions, but the Egyptians are hopefully starting to understand that change will come through rational thinking. I think I have managed to do two things that are quite significant. First, I’ve created an environment where everyone understands the need for change. Secondly I’ve created an alternative. The regime has always acted on a concept of dualism: military repression or an al-Qaeda-style religious state. Egypt is full of alternatives. The country can be run with modern management techniques and accepted human values. Part of my mission is to get Egypt back to being a cosmopolitan, tolerant, open society.
M: You spent much of your time at the IAEA dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. Are you optimistic about the future of negotiations between Tehran and the West?
MEB: Western policy towards Iran, as with the Middle East as a whole, has been a complete failure. Iran is a question of competing ideologies, East and West, and it’s about a confidence deficit and a complete lack of trust on both sides. The only thing people are worried about is Iran’s future intentions, and Iran’s future intentions depend on trust, which you need to strengthen through confidence-building. And that will never happen until the Iranians and the Americans sit around the negotiating table. You have to sit down, reconcile your differences, agree on a modus vivendi and live by it – there is no other way. I know both Iran and the US understand that; I know that both Obama and Ahmadinejad firmly believe it. Just before I left office I had talks with them to that effect. So the answer is yes, I am optimistic.
Power and persuasion
Mohamed El Baradei’s CV
1942 Born in Cairo, Egypt
1962 Graduates from Cairo University with a Bachelor’s degree in law
1964 Joins Egyptian diplomatic service
1984 Starts work at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
1997 Becomes head of the organisation
2005 Jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with the IAEA
2009 Steps down from the agency
2010 Returns to Cairo and launches his campaign for political reform