Read the news stories:
Mohamed ElBaradei hits out at west's support for repressive regimes
Mohammed ElBaradei: unlikely champion of democracy in the Arab World
Cautious reports on Iran were 'framed to avoid war'
Jack Shenker: How are things going with the National Association for Change [NAC] and your effort to collect signatures supporting the campaign?
Mohamed ElBaradei: Well this is something totally new to the Egyptians, to make them feel responsible for their future. They have been used to being told what to do and how to do it, being told to accept whatever lot comes their way in terms of governance – who is going to be their president, what kind of political system they will have, swinging between total alliance with the Soviet Union to very close cooperation with US. So they’ve been completely marginalised in terms of feeling that they own this place, and my goal for them to take charge, to be empowered, to understand that democracy is the way to go in the future is something totally new.
During Nasser’s period they were told, ‘give up your rights, and in return we’ll give you major projects like independence, nationalism, development’ – lots of which didn’t come through for a variety of reasons. But right now they’re being told to give up their rights, yet nothing else is materialising in terms of improving standards of life, in terms of improving and building the Arab community, in terms of R&D, there is really nothing for them to feel proud about in terms of major achievements. But at the same time they’ve been asked to give up all their rights, particularly under this Emergency Law. So to get them from where they are today, after some 50-odd years, to feeling that they are empowered and can change things is becoming very difficult.
I see people who are desperate and have totally lost hope that they can change things, and of course they’re afraid because of the Emergency Law – what you see here is that you can’t even have more than four or five people moving in the street without [the regime] saying ‘this is against the Emergency Law’. You can’t hold big meetings of people because they say ‘this could be agitation against the regime’. We can’t even have a headquarters for this informal association [the NAC] because it is not registered and we will not be able to register it because they tell me this is a political movement and if it’s a political movement you have to go through the party process which is cumbersome and ridiculous. We probably can’t raise funds because we are not a formal entity. So there are a lot of hurdles to overcome in terms of logistics.
But more important is getting people gradually to understand that they have to join the rest of the world and to understand that their economic and social progress is very much linked to the kind of political regime they have. That linkage is what I’m trying to hammer home.
However, having said all that, which sounds pessimistic, I see that there is a thirst for change. When you see that there are around a quarter of a million supporters on Facebook, mostly young guys, proportionally – in a country with a population of 80 million and with internet penetration of only about 16% - this is more than what Obama had. He had 2.2 million online supporters before the election, in a country of 300 million, so proportionally we have more than what Obama had in terms of internet support.
JS: Clearly your arrival back here has generated a lot of momentum, but how do you start converting that into concrete change? I noticed with your visit to Hussein mosque on Friday that you looked, if you don’t mind me saying, very presidential – meeting crowds in front of the cameras, etc. – and you’ve also been meeting delegations from the Coptic community, the arts world, and so on. It seems as if in contrast to your public demeanour a few weeks ago you’re starting to act more in a consciously statesmanlike manner – is that a deliberate campaign strategy?
MEB: It’s not... I have to clarify two things. Firstly, and I keep repeating this – and I have to because 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. I don’t have an ulterior motive, my hope is to be a channel or precursor for change and then let the people decide who they want to be president; it could be anybody, and I’m not necessarily presenting myself as a presidential candidate. I’ve said before that there are a whole lot of common-sense guarantees have to be in place first, including changing the constitution, and of course I need to see that a wide majority of people want me to be that agent of change. I said I will not let them down, but I’ll be very happy just to be a prompt for change.
So it’s not that I’m trying to act presidential, I’m just trying to go down and meet people and listen to their different views – and there are so many different views, I mean they haven’t had the practice of democracy in fifty years, they don’t know how to go about it or where to start. But the Hussein visit was great in the sense that the government media has described me as a ‘virtual figure’ who doesn’t exist in reality, and the picture coming from there was very different. I was quite surprised to see how many people who are extremely poor and deprived are coalescing around me in the streets saying ‘we need change’, and I want to listen – that, I think, sent a different message to the regime. 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’, even for those who don’t have that as a priority, they still need to eat, they still need to have a home.
JS: One of the key constituencies of people fighting for change in Egypt over recent years has been workers, and we’ve seen a lot of very powerful industrial action in that sphere. Are you coordinating with trade unions and workers groups, and do you think that people who are striking over issues like factory privatisation, etc. can be brought on board to your campaign?
MEB: Well we have this so-called National Front for Change [the NAC] and I’ve said that this is a coalition of every Egyptian who believes in change, all the way from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Marxists. Anybody who believes in that overarching goal should join us but we know that there are so many different ideological differences, and that’s fine – like in any country, you have the Labour and the Tories and everyone else, and you let the people decide whom they want to be in charge. So in order not to distract from the cause, I’m limiting myself to saying those who believe that we need change should sign this declaration and say yes, we agree with that. And then once we have that change let them all go their own different ways and let the people decide. So yes we’re open to workers, we’re open to farmers, we’re open to everybody.
But it will take time; people have to understand that change after so many decades of a total lack of democracy will take time. Even just to give people confidence and shed themselves of the fear, this will take time. What I think I’m doing is stirring things up, getting people to realise that there are different ways of going about things and that there are better ways which have been tried and tested in other countries – the majority of countries – and that they work much better, because if you don’t give people freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, freedom of religion, the basic freedoms that everybody takes for granted in a democracy then you’re at a dead-end street.
JS: In that effort to stir things up are you hampered by the state of the official opposition? I’m talking about parties like Al-Wafd, Al-Tagammu, and so on who are ostensibly opposed to the government but have in many ways been quite obstructionist towards your own campaign, and particularly the reports in Al-Masry Al-Yom that Al-Wafd had agreed a secret deal with the government to help isolate you...
MEB: Well I take frankly a very broad-picture and gracious view of all this; I’m not talking about people, I’m talking about policies. If people agree with what we’re doing they are welcome to join us. We are not a front for hidden entities or parties, we are front for individuals; anybody who belongs to any party is welcome and we have had meetings with many different people from different parties, attending as individuals and not as party representatives.
However, if the existing parties are sharing the same goal, I’m happy to coordinate with them. I don’t believe that I want to work within this superficial structure. If they think that this is the way to help things – and I do hear from them similar rhetoric – then fine, but they haven’t been able to effect any change for the past twenty years at least, and we need to try something new and something different. And my goal right now is that I should be able to get as many people as possible to sign and support our call for change because if we can do that it will definitely create a different dynamic. I’d like to see as many people in the next six months or so saying, ‘we would like to see free and fair elections, we would like to see amendments to the constitution and eventually a new constitution’. There is nothing risky about signing that, but it will take time for people to gradually feel like they can do that. I think we have forty or fifty thousand signatures at present which is not bad for a couple of weeks, and I hope there will be a snowball effect.
JS: The Mubarak regime has always been very effective at containing potentially mass mobilisations that threatened the government – you’ve had Kifaya, 6th April, Ayman Nour’s campaign – and every time they’ve proved very adept at neutralising these break-outs of public opinion. I’m thinking especially of Ayman Nour here, who was effectively delegitimized by the regime. How will you avoid that same trap?
MEB: Well, that’s a good question. It’s really up to the people, I continue to say and repeat that I can only help you to help yourself; I’m not able to do much alone and if you really want change everyone has an individual responsibility. Everyone is responsible, everyone has to participate and everyone must fulfil whatever they think they can do; this concept of individual responsibility – which has been completely lost in Egypt – had to come back, there is no one coming in on a white horse that is going to change things for you. What you see every day is people looking at you for change, and I keep telling them, ‘no, I look at you to help me in effecting change’. There are a lot of mental processes and states of mind which have to change, and as I said the change is not going to start or end by 2011 – this could be the beginning, but it is going to take a long time. It’s culture, it’s education, it’s the mindset.
JS: What do you think the government’s strategic response will be to your campaign? Your intervention in the domestic political sphere seemed to take them initially by surprise, but we both know they will fight back against attempts at reform. Do you think there is a danger to yourself personally? And what about your supporters, amongst whom we’ve seen arrests and allegations of police torture already?
MEB: Well of course there are a lot of people outside the country who are afraid for my own security, but I have been in the public domain for many years and have always had this security risk looming in the background. I should take as many precautions as possible, but I don’t want to go around with bodyguards – you saw me at Hussein, just walking along. It comes with the territory. But I see a lot of concern outside of Egypt about my own security, I hear that from so many different governments, people coming to me and saying ‘you should be careful’...
JS: Other governments specifically warning you about your security in Egypt?
MEB: Yes, I’ve had a lot of that. But, as I said, I don’t spend much time thinking about that, though of course I have to take as many precautions as I can.
JS: Well that brings me on to the western perception of Egypt. This is one of your first interviews to the international press since returning to Egypt, and your first interview with an English-language newspaper; it often seems that in Western media and political circles, the rhetoric of the NDP regime – the narrative of Mubarak presiding over great economic growth and containing the threat of Islamist revolution – that narrative is basically accepted verbatim, and that’s the narrative that gets played out in the West. So now that you’re speaking to the Western media, what’s your message to the West, both the media and the governments?
MEB: Well, I think they need to have a more in-depth understanding of what’s happening in Egypt, and the role of Egypt in the Arab World and beyond. We have been lagging behind – I think Tim Sebastian wrote an article a few weeks ago saying Egypt has been watching from the sidelines whilst people went to the moon and carried out great revolutions, and we’ve been just simple observers...
JS: It was a controversial article!
MEB: Yes, yes... But our contribution to human civilisation has been minimal at best. And in addition I see increasing radicalisation in this area of the world, and I understand the reason. People feel repressed 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.
So it’s easy, and you hear it all the time, to say that there is a conspiracy theory by the West against Islam, against the Arabs. And this is not a sustainable system; people talk about the ‘clash of civilisations’ and all this sort of thing, and there is no clash of civilisations – it’s just a question of being able to understand each other, and creating a dialogue and creating the conditions in the Arab World and the Muslim World whereby they can join the rest of the world in moving together as one family for scientific, technical, sociological, political developments.
That is not happening for two reasons. There is the Palestinian issue which is a red flag for every Arab. It’s just a sense of humiliation. There was an article in Foreign Affairs recently which said that there are three different groups of countries: the Arab World, who feel humiliated and angry, India and China, who feel confident, and the West who feel afraid, and I think that’s a good description. There’s a lot of anger and a lot of humiliation here, starting of course with the Palestinian issue, and you cannot hide your head in the sand over this. 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.
Then of course you have Iraq and Afghanistan. Western policy towards this part of the world has been a total failure, in my view. 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.
JS: You say Western policy has been a total failure in Iraq and Afghanistan; do you think the Western policy of pretty much unstinting support for repressive autocrats like President Mubarak has also been a failure? And what will the consequences of that failure be?
MEB: Well I think 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, 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 [Mahmoud] Ahmedinijad and Hassan Nasrallah, that should send you a message: that your policy is not reaching out to the people. The policy should be, ‘we care about you, we care about your welfare, we care about your human rights’.
You cannot just talk about human rights. 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? I’ve said that to many of my friends in the West. There is a need for re-evaluation, and the idea that the only alternative to authoritarian regimes is Bin Laden and co. is a fake one, yet continuation of current policies will make that prophesy come true. Only if you empower the liberals, if you empower the moderate socialists, if you empower all factions of society, only then will extremists be marginalised.
JS: Let me read you a definition of dictatorship: “In contemporary usage, dictatorship refers to an autocratic form of absolute rule by leadership unrestricted by law, constitutions, or other social and political factors within the state.” Is Egypt a dictatorship?
MEB: Well Egypt is not a democracy, that’s for sure. We like here in the Arab World and in Egypt to have stereotyping – this is Islamist, this is socialist, this is an extremist. But human beings are much more sophisticated than that, and political systems also have different characteristics. But we are not a democracy. And if I look at what we have right now in Egypt, it’s a sham. If rulers want to say yes, this is an authoritarian system but in return for you giving up your political rights we’ll take care of your economic welfare, then that’s a different story. But don’t present the system as something that it’s not.
JS: I guess one of the issues concerning me is that in autocratic regimes all around the world you find presidents falsely portraying themselves as benevolent patriarchs, above the fray of daily politics...
MEB: Yes, it’s a tribal system. Egypt for 7000 years really never really had civic society, never really had a democracy, so it goes well beyond the last fifty years or so. It’s a whole change of culture, and what we have now is an individual-based system of governance rather than an institutional system of governance...
JS: And yet I feel that in your public comments you’ve largely held back from criticising President Hosni Mubarak by name; is it not time to hold him accountable and say outright, ‘he is a repressive autocrat, some might even call him a dictator’?
MEB: What I want to do at this stage is call for a constitutional revolution. I’m trying to break every political rule of the game, and I think it’s much more effective not to focus on individuals. And wrongly or rightly, I think everyone is doing what they think is good for the country. That’s my message now: I do not want to reopen the past, we have too much on our hands for the future. So I’m discussing policies, not individuals; I can criticise policies, but I’m not questioning the intentions or actions of individuals. And I think at this stage, that’s the right way to do it. I said from day one that I want to coalesce the Egyptian people around one great idea, which is their salvation – a move from authoritarianism to democracy.
JS: Looking at some of your specific campaigning strategies, you’ve said in the past that as a member of the Egyptian elite you feel you have a duty to campaign for democratic renewal and political reform. Are you trying to mobilise other parts of the Egyptian elite? When you look around gated communities such as this one, there are many upper class and upper middle-class business people who have done very well out of the Mubarak regime financially. If they have a stake in the status quo, how will you get them on board your campaign?
MEB: Well first of all I’m not campaigning, I’m expressing my views in public, and I’ve been amazed by how much people are ready for change and ready to understand and adopt my ideas for change, and appreciating that without biting the bullet and going for a real democratic system we’ll continue in our current state of total stagnation. This is a popular movement; how many people will join, I really don’t know. In many ways it’s like a black hole, because all the rules of the game need to change and there is no level playing field. What I’m trying to do is hammer at this idea: if you really want to get out of stagnation, if you really want to feel that your freedoms and rights are protected, if you really want to see a better future, there are no two ways about it – you have to move to a democratic system.
And that of course is difficult to explain to the average Egyptian; the linkage between political freedom, which they have never experienced, and their ‘bread and butter’ isn’t clear to them. But I think it is starting to seep through; people are starting to talk about constitutions, whereas two months ago nobody even knew we had a constitution! So it will take time, and we have to take the long-term view of change; it isn’t instant coffee, and it won’t happen overnight. It’s very difficult to get people to shed their fear and feel confident. But the key is to make sure people are ready to join, ready to share their fear and despair, and get into their head that they can, like other people in the world, be in control of their own destinies.
There will be a lot of resistance. A lot of people have been benefiting from the current system, as you rightly said; in Egypt the rich live in ghettoes. The gap in social justice here is simply indescribable; when I go to a slum in central Cairo and then I return to my home, these are two different lives. There has been economic development but for some reason it hasn’t trickled down, and obviously that’s a major issue. And I need to focus on this, because economic development and the market economy is all very good but I have to keep my eyes on the 42% of Egyptians who live on less than $1 a day, and the 30% who cannot even read and write. There are so many ills in Egyptian society.
JS: The parliamentary elections are six months away; I know you’re taking a long-term view, but will the NAC get involved in the parliamentary election battle? Considering it is highly unlikely that there will have been any constitutional amendments by that stage?
MEB: I can only tell you what is going to happen next week. It all depends on how much support we can get, how much mobilisation we can achieve. We will see. This is a non-violent movement; if I get millions of Egyptians saying ‘we want change’ then the regime needs to change – there are no two ways about it. I say to the regime, ‘your authority comes from the people, and if those people have made their feelings about you loud and clear then you have to change’. But that depends on how long it takes the people to catch up, and in the meantime the parliamentary elections are not going to solve our problems; the whole constitution needs to change and we need political guarantees. So many things need to change, but what’s important is that we have a president who believes in a completely new constitution, that will move Egypt in a serious way towards democracy. Then we will probably have to go through an interim period, and if we do that everything else will fall into place.
You know, people talk about progress in education and healthcare but all of that is very much linked to a system where the people can call the shots.
JS: You say you believe in non-violent campaigning. If the constitutional amendments don’t happen and the current regime attempts to engineer an undemocratic transfer of power, to Gamal Mubarak or to anyone else, and if millions of Egyptians who are desperate for change see that the regime is refusing to back down, will we see violence on the streets of Egypt?
MEB: I don’t know. The Egyptian people by their very nature are peaceful people, but it’s one of the inherent rights of every individual to have freedom of assembly and demonstration. All I know is that if we do not get all these changes, and if there is no level playing-field and no equal opportunity for people to run in the presidential elections, and no guarantees of the sort you get everywhere else, then I’m not going to be a part of that process. I’ll continue to speak on the ills of society, but I’m not going to legitimise the system by being part of it. What other people will do, I don’t know.
JS: You and your wife were probably looking forward to a quiet life after your retirement as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], so what was it that really prompted you as an individual to take on this challenge of stirring up one of the world’s most stagnant political landscapes?
MEB: Well I was looking for a slightly more quiet life, not a completely quiet life! I still have lots of commitments I have to act upon. I’m writing a book, for example, and I have a legal commitment to finishing that book, and at the end of this month I have a commitment to go to Harvard and Fletcher, and there are a number of boards which I have to go an sit on, so I did have a lot of plans regarding what I’d do next. I’ve been working throughout my life in a global setting, not really focusing on one country. Inequities, insecurities, disarmament, all that sort of thing. But what prompted me to act in Egypt was the increasing number of people who were saying to me, ‘you should come and help’.
And of course my perspective is always the big picture, I care about everyone else around the world. But this is my country of origin. 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.”So things have happened, but not everything will change overnight, and in which direction things will move I do not know. I want to put the ball in the people’s court, because they are not used to that; they want a saviour, and I am not a saviour.
I want to go and spend some time with my granddaughter in London and have a life at this stage, but I will do as much as I can here. The ball is in the people’s court, and all I can do is give them a torch to light and tell them which direction to go. Whether they will go in that direction or not is the big question.
JS: Let me move on for a moment to some questions about the IAEA. There’s a sense that some of the reports about Iran coming out of the agency under your successor, Yukiya Amano, have got a rather different tone from the reports issued under your stewardship – would you agree with that assessment?
MEB: Well I think I’ll excuse myself from passing judgement on that. I can speak only for my reports; I’m sure he [Mr Amano] is trying to do what he thinks is the right thing to do. I haven’t seen a change of substance in the reports; there is maybe a change of tone, but that’s a function of personality.
I have been always of the view that, as a lawyer, I have to stick to the facts and I will not have anything in my reports that I cannot vouch for 100%, because these are issues that have to do with war and peace. And I also believe that we [the IAEA] have a role not only to do inspections and verification, but also to work with the different parties to find solutions. And I don’t think there’s any solution to any of these issues of insecurity except through meaningful dialogue. I left the agency a very happy man when I saw that this approach has been adopted by Barack Obama.
JS: It’s interesting because heading the IAEA is really a dual role: it’s a technical job but you also have to try and keep a lid on tensions...
MEB: Yes, of course we are technical but we are a technical organisation totally embedded in a political setting. Yes we are technical, we have to do technical work, but we are dealing with the politics of nuclear energy and we have to be aware of the background and political implications of our work. When I was working at the agency we would literally go through thirty drafts or so of each report before it’s ready, because I knew every word could be used politically and in a very subjective way...
JS: Were you very conscious when drafting the reports of wanting to avoid using the kind of language which could be exploited...
MEB: Yes of course, every word was weighed to make sure that it is immune from being abused, and I always wanted to make sure that we were not overstating or understating, but rather just stating the facts.
JS: There have been suggestions in some quarters that in some reports on Iran, though they were correct in substance, a deliberate tone may have been adopted in an effort to minimise tensions – do you think that’s fair?
MEB: I think the tone was set by me, that’s true. But all the facts were in every report, unvarnished. Yet the tone of course is very important, not to reduce tension but to put things in context. I never looked upon my role as simply that of technocrat or technician, but I also understood how I could make use of the political setting both to help us in our inspections and to help us find solutions. The inspections were not an end in themselves.
JS: You worked very hard to try and stop the rush to war that ended in the US-led invasion of Iraq; do you fear that history is repeating itself now with Iran?
MEB: I don’t think so, I hope not. For one thing there is a new administration in the US that hail from a different perspective, and I would hope that the lessons of Iraq, both in London and in the US have started to sink in. Sure there are dictators, but are you ready every time you want to get rid of a dictator to sacrifice a million innocent civilians?
There is a major issue, which has to do with our sense of humanity. What you can see now with this investigation in London [the Chilcot Inquiry] and all the indications coming out of it, which are that Iraq was not really about weapons of mass destruction but rather about regime change, and I keep asking the same question – where do you find this regime change in international law? And if it is a violation of international law, who’s accountable for that?
These are issues which are not going to go away. I just hope that some of these lessons are now being understood. For example in the case of Iran, there is no other solution other than sitting at the negotiating table and trying to reconcile your differences and work out where every party is coming from. Unless of course there is an imminent threat, in which case that needs to be addressed collectively by the international community. But that imminent threat is not there today; there is concern about Iran’s intentions, but nobody is claiming that Iran today is assembling a nuclear weapon. And when you talk about the tone of reports, that’s the kind of thing I always wanted to convey: we are concerned, but we’re not panicky.
JS: OK, I know we’re well past our time and have to leave it there. Let me just give you one closing question: Hosni Mubarak has been in power for almost three decades in Egypt, and you say he’s achieved nothing but stagnation. If you could speak to people like Barack Obama and Gordon Brown directly about their support for Mubarak, what would you tell them?
MEB: Change will have to come from within the country, from within Egypt. I don’t think change will come from outside. But as part of the human family, east and west, north and south, we have to be true to our human values. If we believe that democracy and respect for human rights is the way forward we have to speak about it and apply it systematically, otherwise none of us will have any credibility, as east or west, as individuals or institutions.