Mohamed El Baradei: unlikely champion of democracy in Arab world
SOURCE: The Guardian
Reserved, diplomatic and restrained in his rhetoric … Mohamed ElBaradei.
by Jack Shenker
As you drive westwards from the Nile towards the pyramids of Giza, redbrick slums give way to high-fenced enclaves with security patrols; above them vast billboards depict the latest accessories for the Egyptian upper-class, from signature golf courses to baroque villas.
Behind these walls lives Mohamed ElBaradei, the unlikely figurehead for a movement seeking to get rid of one of the Middle East’s most entrenched autocratic regimes. “In Egypt the rich live in ghettoes,” he said, waving his hand at the beautifully manicured garden, complete with pool. “The gap in social justice here is simply indescribable.”
The gulf between Egypt’s rich and poor is one of many social ills that persuaded ElBaradei to swap a comfortable retirement in western Europe for the mud-slinging world of Egyptian politics.
Reserved, diplomatic and restrained in his rhetoric, the bespectacled former head of the UN’s nuclear weapons agency often appears awkwardly out of place in an arena dominated by bullish characters and highly personal attacks.
In recent weeks the state-controlled press has called the Nobel peace laureate a traitor, and described his campaign for political reform as “tantamount to a constitutional coup”. Meanwhile his supporters have been arrested and allegedly tortured by security services.
“I was hoping for a slightly more quiet life,” he admitted to the Guardian in his first international interview since returning to his native country in February. “But this is a place where I have friends, where I have family, where I have ties, and when I hear people telling me, ‘you have to come and help fight for change’ of course I have to weigh in and see what I can do.
“How successful I will be I don’t know, but at least in the past couple of months alone I’ve managed to make people less afraid, I’ve managed to make people understand that the political system is the key to overcoming stagnation, and I’ve managed to make people understand that there are alternatives to Bin Laden on one side or autocracy on the other.”
Sceptics would raise an eyebrow at that list of successes, especially as ElBaradei is coy about his exact intentions regarding next year’s presidential election. So far he has insisted that he will not run unless a “constitutional revolution” takes place to establish a genuine system of democracy rather than the current “sham” system, but that has not stopped him intensifying his public appearances.
Last week ElBaradei’s arrival at Friday prayers in Cairo’s Hussein mosque sparked a media scrum. It also provided a rebuttal of sorts to critics who claim that he is too far detached from the hardships of the ordinary Egyptians he claims to be fighting for.
“I’m not trying to act presidential, I’m just want to go down and meet people and listen to their different views,” he said. “It shows that it’s not just the so-called intellectuals or educated that want change in this country, but rather everybody; even those that do not feel strongly about ‘political freedom’ still need to eat, they still need to have a home.”
Since his triumphant return to Cairo, ElBaradei has clocked up a series of Egyptian and Arab TV appearances in an effort to spread his demand for domestic change. But he used his first English-language interview to draw parallels between Egypt’s malaise and the wider framework of western foreign policy.
At the heart of the 67-year-old’s message is a warning that unstinting western support for repressive Arab regimes to combat the perceived threat of Islamism is a dead-end strategy, with potentially diabolical consequences.
“I see increasing radicalisation in this area of the world, and I understand the reason. People feel depressed by their own governments, they feel unfairly treated by the outside world, they wake up in the morning and who do they see – they see people being shot and killed, all Muslims from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Darfur,” he said.
He rejected the idea of a “clash of civilisations”, but warned that dialogue between Muslims and the west would be difficult without a just settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. “Unless you find a fair and equitable resolution to this issue the people here will always feel humiliated and also, it will continue to be used by Arab rulers as a pretext for their failure to deliver,” he added.
Employing the type of language not usually associated with the mild-mannered diplomat, Elbaradei described western policy in Iraq and Afghanistan as “a total failure”. He said: “It has not been based on dialogue, understanding, supporting civil society and empowering people, but rather it’s been based on supporting authoritarian systems as long as the oil keeps pumping.”
“If you bet on individuals, instead of people, you are going to fail – and the western policy so far has been to bet on individuals who are not supported by their people and who are being discredited every day. When you see that the most popular people in the Middle East are [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah [of Hezbollah], that should send you a message: that your policy is not reaching out to the people.
Exposing the flaws of the Arab world’s political systems, and establishing the link between an open and pluralistic form of governance on the one hand and an improvement in living standards on the other is one of ElBaradei’s biggest obstacles in a nation with little experience of democratic participation.
“It’s something totally new for Egyptians, to make them feel responsible for their future. But this isn’t instant coffee: it will take time, and it’s very difficult to get people to shed their fear and feel confident.”
By Egypt’s standards, ElBaradei’s growth in support since his return has been stratospheric: more than 200,000 fans have joined his Facebook group, and an effort to secure online signatures backing reform by the “National Association for Change”, a grouping encompassing “Marxists to the Muslim Brotherhood”, has had reasonable success.
But in a country where dissent is heavily policed and opposition forces have largely lain dormant for a generation, ElBaradei knows his options are restricted. And after elite corruption scandals, he must combat the suspicions of those who question his motives.
“People have become so cynical in Egypt because of the kind of system we have here, that they don’t really believe someone can be acting for the common good, they think he must have an ulterior motive,” he said. “I don’t have an ulterior motive, my hope is to be a channel or precursor for change and then let the people decide. I’m not necessarily presenting myself as a presidential candidate.”
With the election a long way off, and no constitutional amendments yet in the pipeline, ElBaradei is hedging his bets. But he remains set on fighting for deep-rooted change in a country where stagnation has become the status quo.
“The west talks a lot about elections in Iran, for example, but at least there were elections – yet where are the elections in the Arab world? If the west doesn’t talk about that, then how can it have any credibility?” he said.
Amid the tasteful modern art and constantly chugging water-sprinklers, it will take a lot for ElBaradei to prove that he has what it takes to be one of those liberals, capable of providing a voice for the inhabitants of Cairo’s slums and beyond.