Friday, January 21, 2011

ElBaradei: The critics are wrong

  • Egyptian dissident insists he hasn't lost momentum
  • Mubarak's 'authoritarian dictatorship' has created a 'failed state'
  • Smear campaigns are taking their toll on family
  • Wikileaks has 'undermined credibility' of the US

-Taken from Monocle
-Cairo - January 2011

The following interview took place at Mohamed ElBaradei's Cairo home in mid-December 2010, just over a week after Egypt's parliamentary elections but before the Alexandrian church bombing and the intifada in Tunisia (which he later gave his views on here). An edited version of the interview appeared in Q&A form in this month's edition of Monocle.


Jack Shenker: What has your reaction been to the recent parliamentary elections?

Mohamed ElBaradei: As you know I called on everybody not to get involved with this charade. Even if the election had been ‘transparent’, the whole structure would have inevitably led to a parliament that was not representative of the people, a parliament that maintained the distortion of the constitution, maintained the laws that regulate quotas for women and farmers and labourers and so on, quotas that do not represent any of these people. Plus the fact that the president appoints some part of the legislature, the fact that the parliament does not get access to full budget, and so on. The whole thing just has nothing to do with democracy, and you don’t go like a bunch of sheep into a slaughterhouse and then complain that you got slaughtered. The writing was on the wall, and it said ‘don’t come nearby’.

But anyway, I hope they, the opposition, have learned lessons – either you continue along the path which Einstein defined as insanity, i.e. doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results, or you learn from your mistakes. This is really the basic question now we have to ask ourselves as Egyptians, and it requires heavy lifting. I understand that people are desperate and anxious for change to happen overnight, but it won’t– unless people mobilise and understand how to go about it. Because we are dealing with a police state and it doesn’t require rocket science to work out that you cannot really work within the system, within the so-called political institutions. They are not institutions; they are a bunch of laws that are basically designed to perpetuate an authoritarian system in power.

JS: Opposition parties emerged with almost no representation in the legislature; did the results leave you feeling vindicated in your previous call for a boycott?

MEB: What good does it do to feel vindicated? I’ve been vindicated so many times before on so many more important issues, but that’s not what matters. The issue for me is to see whether the Egyptian people can think rationally and strategically on issues, not emotionally. And so far it has really been a burst of emotions: fifty people going to a demonstration here, a declaration coming there, and these are all well and good but they are not going to change the system. And as I said you look at the system, you look at the experience of other countries around the world, and you see that to change a system similar to that which existed in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union you have to work completely outside the system, and through unconventional means, and you have to rely on the power of the people.

We need united opposition in numbers, and I still believe that is the only way to do it. If you get five or ten million people signing this petition, which nobody should be afraid to sign, all it does is strip legitimacy from the regime and say to the people of Egypt and the world that Egyptians want change and want to start a process of democracy.

JS: But isn’t that clear already? These parliamentary elections stripped the regime of any last shred of democratic credibility, yet the ‘world’ has done nothing about the situation.

MEB: Everybody knows that the regime has no legitimacy, but at the moment the opposition cannot go to Mubarak and speak. Whereas if I go to Mubarak and say ‘we have 20 million signatures behind us’ that completely changes the equation; he will not be able to argue against the fact that change has to come, and he will either have to cede power or start implementing the demands of the opposition.

So the petition is not just symbolically valuable, it has a very real impact – it gives you a platform, it gives you a mandate in the face of a regime that doesn’t want to see or hear any opposition. It gives you something concrete, and in my view if you get 20 million signatures – and these are not signatures for me, these are signatures supporting demands that everybody knows are common sense – then that matters. And if you have a united opposition, which we should have today – everybody from the Marxists to the Muslim Brotherhood to the liberal social democrats – saying yes we have our differences but we agree on one thing, and that’s a system where the people make the final call. And if people are willing to go into the street to demonstrate in large numbers, on social issues, political issues – well, these are the tools we need to work with.

JS: You said in your recent video message that the Mubarak regime must realise that if it continues repressing peaceful protests then there will be violence on the streets.

MEB: Well, my fear is that we will reach a tipping point, and quite frankly I see that coming. People say the Egyptians are patient but you go around the streets of Cairo – you don’t even have to the countryside when you have 81 slums in the capital and half the city’s population is living within them in subhuman conditions – and you’ll see the tipping point coming. I fear that at some point we will see a revolt, not over human rights issues specifically but a revolt of the poor, a melange of everything. I was thinking yesterday about how many Egyptians already sacrifice their lives to try and reach Europe; if they don’t drown and die the first time they will try again. They have reached the point where their life is not worth living; if they have even just a 5% chance of making it to Europe they will take that 95% risk of dying in the process.

If Egyptians are already doing that then why does anyone not believe that it may come to a point where those same people are saying ‘my life is not worth living unless there is change, but we are not able to effect change through peaceful channels’? Then everything could explode. And nobody wants that because then everything will go.

JS: What do these parliamentary elections say about the state of Egypt’s political institutions, and the regime’s intentions over the coming year?

MEB: Egypt is a one-party state and an authoritarian dictatorship. If you have overall opposition with 14 seats in parliament … tell me any state in the world that even pretends to be democratic and is in a similar position. If you have the Muslim Brotherhood going from 88 seats to zero, if you have three Copts out of a population of ten million in parliament, if you have only three women in parliament and have to invent a quota system to produce more, if you have former army generals who are in the parliament under the rubric of being labourers, then you have a parliament that is totally unrepresentative of the Egyptian people, a parliament that has come about through a completely rigged process where violence has been used.

The outcome we have is the best example possible that we are going from bad to worse. At least in 2005 there was some effort in taking shy steps towards democracy; this time the corruption is in your face. And I don’t understand – if you want to rig the elections then you have to be intelligent, yet there is not even a sense of intelligence because there’s not a single person in the world today who could look at this system and think it a democracy, or even a system marching on the way to democracy. Everybody can see it’s a regression.

JS: Given that, do you think the regime is trying to send a message about its tolerance of opposition in the run-up to presidential transition?

MEB: I don’t really know whether they have the ability to articulate a message; they appear to be fighting all over the place, between young and old and who knows where else. But if there is a message then it’s definitely the wrong message; they are telling people ‘you will continue to be enslaved, you will continue to be poor, there will be no change in policy, there will be a continuation of what you had in the past thirty years’. I see Egypt as a member of the party of sixty or so global failed states, and I see Egypt rock bottom on measures of transparency, corruption, human development – we have 40% living on less than two dollars a day.

JS: So has Egypt become a failed state?

MEB: According to the ‘Foreign Policy/Fund for Peace’ tables it has become a failed state. People use different criteria but if you’re looking at the ability of the state to provide a minimum and decent life for every human being then of course it’s a failed state. If you look at the ability of people to feel free and express their basic rights of religion, expression and so on, then of course it’s a failed state. If you look at Egypt’s ability to influence the region through soft power then of course it’s going backwards. A state is not just borders and government, at the end of the day a state is supposed to serve its people, it’s ultimately a territory where people live and where ultimately the sovereignty lies with the people, who live together under the benefits of a social contract. And if you look at the people in Egypt, you will get 95-99% of the people saying ‘the state has failed us’.

JS: Do you have any insight into the succession battle going on within the [ruling] NDP – especially reported struggles between Gamal and forces within the military that oppose his presidency?

MEB: I don’t concern myself with that, and I keep saying it doesn’t matter who it is that comes into power, what matters is how he or she comes to power. That’s why I boycotted the parliamentary elections and that’s why I’m calling for a boycott of the presidential elections, because you cannot be half-pregnant – either you are a democracy or you’re an authoritarian system, and to try and put up a façade of democracy… well that façade is now long gone, indeed has been gone for some time. The NDP itself is a continuation of the failed state; if they had any sense they would say ‘we have tried, we have failed, and we would like to give a chance to other Egyptians’. For the love of this country, I’d love them to do that. They keep talking about 5-6% [economic growth] but it didn’t trickle down – the rich got richer, the poor expanded.

JS: The Madinaty land row seems to have exposed – even more blatantly than normal – the blurring of lines between power and wealth in the higher echelons of Egyptian society. Is it a symptom of national malaise?

MEB: There’s a linkage between lack of good governance and poverty, a sense of marginalisation, radicalism, violence, social decay, sectarian strife, and so on. All these are linked, and that’s my greatest worry. Egypt used to be at the forefront of the Arab World, the other nations looked to it as a model, and in the ‘40s and ‘50s it was a bastion of moderation, tolerance and culture. People used to listen to Egypt’s perception and views. Right now all that has gone, and the region is pulverised – there is no worse region in the world when it comes to civil war and to violence. My greatest worry is that steady radicalisation in the region; Egypt could be the one to reverse that trend, get people to get back to where they should belong – part of the international community, pursuing political participation and social justice. Or we could continue to see the extremism that’s growing everywhere. And that is where I turn to the west; 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.

When I see the statement by the High Representative of the European Union, or by the State Department about the Egyptian elections, I not only feel disappointed, but I feel that they are losing every ounce of credibility in the region because actions speak so much louder than words. And even those words are so sheepishly pronounced – they express ‘regret’ and ‘dismay’, and they end by reaffirming that Egypt is a major ally, which is a way of saying ‘forget about the fraud, we will continue to work with you’. If they think they are buying themselves stability then they are completely misguided; don’t then be surprised if this increasing fragmentation, radicalisation, marginalisation, anger and humiliation that’s brewing in the region comes back to haunt them.

The west is losing all credibility when it comes to convincing people here that they are serious about their basic values: democracy, freedom, justice, rule of law – all of that is out the window. There’s a lot of anger and distrust from people towards the west, not just over the elections but also over the Palestinian issue, Iraq, Iran; you’re losing credibility and the west’s policy towards the Middle East has been a total failure. And then compare that to elections in Zimbabwe where sanctions were applied and the opposition is now power-sharing at least, or to the situation in Burma or to Iran. The reaction of the west at present is based on political hypocrisy rather than deep-rooted values, and now what I see here is a feeling in the street that we need to wash our hands of the west, that the west is not interested in our freedom, or our social justice, or our endemic conflicts. The feeling is ‘if they don’t give a hoot about me, why should I give a hoot about them?’ And people don’t realise that if you are not going to solve the problem of radicalism by going through this bubble at airports; the issue is much deeper and you have to take a long-term view.

No government from outside can change the regime in Egypt, and I’ve said that many times, but as people – and the governments of the west are supposed to be representatives of their people – the people should express deep condemnation for the deprivation of human rights anywhere, the way it is expressed over Burma, Iran or anywhere else. There should be a sense of human revulsion – if I see someone losing their freedom in Timbuktu, it will provoke a reaction in me; forget about the ethical dimension for a moment, even just from the selfish perspective of wanting a world based on global stability, you have to have a reaction. And you won’t have global stability if you send the message that freedom and democracy is good for us, but not for the barbarians (as the blacks were called in apartheid South Africa). You have to send a message to the people that we care about your freedoms – we are not interfering in your internal affairs, but we are sending a message to the regime as people, not as governments, that we care about your freedoms and this is an issue we take extremely seriously.

JS: Is the international community receptive to your message?

MEB: Tremendously; I haven’t met one single leader who does not understand the plight of the Egyptian people.

JS: And yet the US continues to fund Mubarak’s security apparatus to the tune of $1.3bn a year.

MEB: Well none of these people can influence what is happening here or change the system, but they can react as people to what is a blatant violation of human rights. The way we reacted to Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, so we should react to everyone who is denied his or her freedom. I’ve started a process, and I don’t think it’s going to stop. It might take a year, it might take longer, but change is inevitable here, and when I finally retire – and my wife wishes I had done that yesterday – I will feel quite satisfied.

JS: You’ve faced criticism from your own supporters about your persistent absences from the country and the perceived loss of momentum that’s gone with that. One Al Masry Al Youm columnist said recently that your involvement in Egyptian politics turned out to be half-hearted, and that as you retreated, ‘so many of the substantial gains he made were wasted… his popularity diminished, along with his credibility.’ Is that fair?

MEB: The critics don’t have any point, and the credibility of these critics is open to question – many of the criticism is coming from within the ruling party. I have been vilified in every possible way, from supposedly being an agent of Iran, an agent of the US, responsible for the war in Iraq, hacking my own daughter’s facebook page… so we have to ask about the credibility and the honesty of some of these criticisms. And I happen to take a completely different view. I have said from day one that there is nobody on a white horse that is coming to liberate Egypt; the bad news is that that person does not exist. All I wanted to do was start a process, and tell them ‘we need to catch up with the 21st century, we need to defend our rights, and we need to think about ways in which to defend our rights – this is a police state, so don’t play their game’.

And there have been a lot of people – and there continue to be a lot of people – who are responding to this message, because there is little credibility to the established opposition, who might be well-intentioned but they haven’t achieved anything. People are looking for a different way to go about achieving change. My tactics have been firstly to say ‘you need to work outside the system’, and secondly ‘you need to provide me or people like me with a mandate to have a strong foothold from which to confront the regime’, and that’s through the petition, and thirdly to strip all legitimacy from the regime by boycotting elections. Imagine if that election had been completely boycotted and we had 30 million people signing the petition – the regime would have gone, in my opinion.

JS: But what does working outside the system mean in a practical sense, apart from the petition? What about mobilisation on the street?

MEB: The petition is the easiest way is to break the culture of fear, which is still in place. We have one million signatures, many of which are from the Muslim Brotherhood because they are the most organised, but when you have one million out of 80 million then you still have a way to go. But I understand that, I think that’s down to a culture of fear and I keep hammering at this – you have to take one single step to start with, and what you are really saying by signing the petition is ‘I want to restore my humanity’ – we shouldn’t be afraid, the regime will not be able to detain and torture 80 million people. But it takes time; we have a background of 58 years of total repression and total dictatorship under three different rulers where everyone, from Marxists to the Muslim Brotherhoods, has been excluded. People are afraid – if you go in the street there is 90% support for what I am saying, but if you ask them to sign the petition it’s different so we have to take things gradually.

So signing the petition is one thing, uniting the opposition is another; I’m now calling on the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Wafd, Al-Ghad and all the major opposition parties to unite. We have a lot of different views on a lot of different issues but let us at least unite on saying ‘we need democracy, we need to change the constitution, we need to have fair and free elections, and we commit ourselves in every way to not participating in the presidential ballot – and if the regime doesn’t listen we need to go to the streets and agitate, through peaceful demonstrations. In every movement for change the grassroots have to be at the forefront, labour must be at the forefront, young people must be at the forefront. There is of course an increasing number going to the streets but we need to see that snowball growing.

These are the tools I have; people don’t understand that in a police state, people need to be educated that everyone has to participate to change the system, I can’t do it alone, and a lot of this disappointment is coming from the myth that if I’m here things will change, and if I’m outside things are not going to change. Also people must understand that they can’t just think emotionally; they must plan together, unite together, work together – but the tools available are very limited.

JS: But I think many people accept that there is no knight in shining armour riding in to save the country; what they’re looking for is a figurehead around which people can rally, and who can inspire momentum on the ground, galvanise the grassroots. And the problem is that when those people are being dragged away by state security at demonstrations, or tortured in police stations, and at the same time they see you on book tours in Brazil or Japan or wherever, they feel let down – can you understand that?

MEB: Well I see this as part of the process of education, because even if I’m here – and I’m here now – that’s not going to stop the police from torturing people. Nor am I going to attend – and I don’t think it’s my role to attend –demonstrations of 30 people. When Khaled Said was killed, you’ll remember that I did go on the demonstration at Alexandria, and this was the largest demonstration we’ve seen, about four or five thousand. Of course there was an equivalent number of ‘amin markazi [central security] present, and it’s the first time I saw that – I was absolutely stunned.

But these are not the numbers that are going to affect change; this was a test, and it showed that people are still afraid. Because you have this most egregious violation of human rights, a young man tortured to death, and yet you’re getting less than 10,000 on the streets; in normal circumstances, in somewhere like Thailand, you’ll see a million on the streets, and then you can start talking about change. So the message to the people is ‘don’t just hide behind me and think you will be protected – you need to protect yourselves. You have to be large in numbers, and you have to understand that you must take risks for your own liberty.’ And I think this is succeeding now; after lots of outcry about me being outside the country, they are realising they will have to work on their own whether I’m in or out.

Another issue is that I have no access to the media here. And an important part of this is my visibility, credibility and my continued focus of putting a floodlight on the atrocities of the regime, and much of the time I am able to do that more from the outside, through my contacts, my media exposure, and so on. Interestingly not a single Egyptian television station has asked to see my face.

JS: I think many people still aren’t convinced, they still feel let down.

MEB: Well let me explain further why I’m in and out of the country. I’m in and out because this is my access to the world; I need to continue focusing attention on the Egyptian regime and creating empathy for the Egyptian people – not amongst governments but amongst ordinary people. I want to show that Arabs are not the stereotypes they imagine; I want them to see an Arab, an Egyptian who is a commissioner. When you say I was in Brazil signing books, actually I wasn’t – I was there as a commissioner on HIV/AIDS, something no one even wants to talk about here. I was in Hiroshima because I was fighting for nuclear disarmament, an issue of major importance in the Middle East. I was in Mauritius talking about African economic integration and making it clear that we, North Africa, are a part of black Africa. So we have to show that we are not the stereotyped, isolated group of fanatics that some people imagine. And that’s a very important role, to continue to work with the rest of the world.

In addition I have certain legal obligations, I have a book coming out in May – in the middle of all this I get sent chapters to work on and revise, and this to me is very important because it tells my story. It’s called The Age of Deception and it talks about the deception I’ve seen right, left and centre in big countries and small countries. But it doesn’t impact on my campaigning because my physical presence is not the issue, it’s the ideas that count. And as you know I use twitter, I use facebook – geography is irrelevant. People need to shed themselves of the idea that I’m their protector; at the deep level they think if I’m here they’re protected, but they’re not protected – I myself am not even protected. I live here without any security, and of course there is a risk, not from the regime necessarily but there are so many people who would like to see me removed from the scene. However I am following every day what is happening in Egypt, and I want people to understand that I am with them all the time.

JS: The writer Tarek Osman says you have a colossal liability: you’re ‘a liberal who represents the classic Egyptianism that combines Islamism and Christianity in one identity’. He describes you as part of a 1950s and ‘60s generation of Egyptians ‘shaped by traditions of cosmopolitanism, secularism, and social leniency’, and argues that today this is at odds with the ‘potent religious-conservative wave that has ridden over much of Egyptian society’. Does that worry you?

MEB: I don’t think so, no. I think part of my mission and those of others is to get Egypt back to being a cosmopolitan, tolerant, open society, and not a blinkered, extremist, fractured society. So I’m proud to be all of the above, and it will take time, but I’m not here to perpetuate the status quo that I see in Egypt today – if that was the case then I wouldn’t be here at all. I have a mission vis a vis myself which is yes, I’d like to bring Egypt back to when it was on the right track, before it got completely distorted.

JS: But in this day and age, are many Egyptians receptive to that argument?

MEB: I think so. Of course this is a very fractured society; if you go to the Copts then naturally they are receptive to it, as are Muslim moderates. And of course there will be a lot of opposition. I have been accused of being anti-Islam and anti-everything Islamic – obviously these people have magically got into my heart and discovered what I secretly believe! I laugh at all that stuff, I’m like ‘Teflon’ Reagan – nothing sticks! In Egypt the challenge frankly is that it’s not just about restoring democracy, rule of law and basic freedoms, it’s about restoring values which we used to have. Values like tolerance, social solidarity, respect, decency, transparency. And all these values exist in every religion.

JS: What's your take on current sectarian tensions in Egypt?

MEB: My take is that this is a symptom of a decaying society. Alright so I’m an old man, I lived in Egypt through the ‘50s and ‘60s, I dealt with Christians, Jews, Italians, Armenians, you name it, and it never occurred to me or anyone at that time what your colour or religion or creed was. We were all part of Egypt living together. Everybody I dealt with was a different nationality. Sectarianism is a symptom of poverty and repression, which bring out the worst in people. None of us are born as Mother Theresa, or as a suicide bomber. So the conditions are producing this; if it’s not Copts and Muslims, it will be Nubians and the Cairo government, or Sinai Bedouins and the Cairo government. People express their frustration in different ways.

I don’t want to get philosophical but Jean-Paul Sartre said that people always want to feel superior, that someone’s below them, but that doesn’t exist when everyone in society is protected by law, is treated like a human being and is taught to be tolerant, understanding that you can believe in whatever you want to believe in and that is your own business. These are values we lost. And when I see three people from the Coptic community elected to parliament today, what does that say about where we are?

JS: Yet you’re willing to work with the Muslim Brotherhood, elements of which are hostile to the idea of a Copt becoming president.

MEB: I want to see all the parties working together, going to all parts of the country to spread the message; we need united, not fractured opposition at the moment. My tactic is a united opposition, where we are all working for the same goal and can be seen together, giving a clear-cut commitment not to participate in the presidential elections, everyone doing their best to sign the petition and get a mandate – because if we have 5 or 10 million signatures we can go to Mubarak and say ‘we are representatives of the people, and here is the paper to prove it’. And this is the most elegant, peaceful way of doing things. They [the opposition] lost a golden opportunity to push this during the elections, but anyway. And people who have lost their jobs, who are living on ten [Egyptian] pounds a day, people who have social grievances, they have the right to go into the streets to call for the economic and political rights, and they should go into the streets. These are the tools available to us. But neither I nor anyone else has a magic wand.

When people talk about the Ikhwan [the Muslim Brotherhood] being banned, it’s like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand. No matter what you say, the Ikhwan have the sympathy of probably – and we can’t say exactly because we don’t have polls for this sort of thing – but at least 20% of the people; after all they got 20% of the seats in a rigged parliamentary election. My first ever encounter with an Ikhwan person was with [former Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary leader] Saad El-Katatni when I arrived back in Cairo this year, and I made it clear that we agree on the big picture need for democracy. He agreed on the need for civil society, that they’re not looking for a religious society, which I thought was a good thing to hear from them and we need to pin it down in the constitution and make that a red line.

I keep saying everywhere: I will work with every single Egyptian who wants change, but there is a red line, which is that all Egyptians have the same rights and obligations. And I’ve said in public and in private that although I work with the Ikhwan, I would be very happy to see a female Copt as president of Egypt. So working with the Ikhwan or with Marxists… I’ll work with every Egyptian, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion – let’s build a democracy and let the people decide.

JS: Have the attacks on your character and your family by the state-run press taken a toll?

MEB: On my daughter yes, though not on me – I’ve become so used to this stuff that it’s laughable. It’s ironic that I’m the most decorated Egyptian wherever I go in the world, and the most vilified within my own country. But I take that as another decoration, a sign that I’m fighting for the right cause. So it doesn’t affect me personally, but of course it takes a toll on my family and on our security. My daughter lives in London and is married in England and of course she was extremely offended at the intrusion into her privacy [following the publication of her facebook photos on the internet], something that isn’t necessarily understood here. And I must say that the British were extremely supportive and took all measures necessary to protect her. Of course these are issues I have to take care of, it’s about my family.

It just shows the level of desperation, the level of debasement that the regime has sunk to in order to vilify me. It’s interesting that until today I haven’t seen one single discussion [within the state press] on the actual things I’m talking about – nobody is explaining why the constitution is good as it is, why the election regulations are good as they are, why Egyptians abroad cannot vote, why we should not have international observers. There was never a single discussion on a substantive issue, it’s all vilification which makes me the devil incarnate. But what they don’t understand is that this continues to add to my credibility everywhere else in the world. I was with a famous black African singer recently – I won’t say his name – and he said to me ‘take back the country’, so [the regime] are not helping themselves with any of that stuff.

JS: You talk about the limitations of operating inside a police state. Social media like twitter and facebook seems to be an important tool for you; how effective do you think you’ve been in exploiting those mediums?

MEB: As I’ve said, we don’t really have many tools, so we have to use the tools we have intelligently. I can’t have even a headquarters, raise funds, hire a conference room to give a speech. So in many ways I am the leader of a virtual opposition.

A year ago I had no clue about tweets, now I’m an expert in how to write something in 140 characters! They always say old horses don’t learn new tricks, but I’ve been forced to learn new tricks.

JS: Does the existence of these alternative forms of media change the paradigm of how information is controlled and disseminated in a country like Egypt?

MEB: Social networks are excellent, facebook and so on. Printed media isn’t ‘objective’; you can see a variety of underlying ideologies. Why is it that the conservative Washington Post has had ten recent editorials on Egypt, but there’s been none in the liberal New York Times? It is remarkable. So social media has become important because it gives you raw data, it gives you information. And it’s important in Egypt because of the context of media repression. I have on my facebook fan page around 300,000 supporters which is remarkable in a country where internet penetration is only about 17-18%. I’ve been told that this was more pro rata than Obama had before the election, which shows how thirsty young people are for an outlet.

Now I can record a video at home without even going to a studio, put it up on YouTube, and by the end of the day it’s running in full on Al Jazeera. We’re in an age where you cannot restrict people, and I’m sure the regime is agonising that messages can be spread everywhere. But there has to be a division of labour in that process of change, and I see my point of strength as exposing the regime, creating empathy for the plight of the Egyptians, and that requires me to keep up my contacts outside and inside the country, and that’s something local politicians and young people don’t always understand. And I can appreciate their enthusiasm, but I think they’re gradually getting the message that they’re protection lies in their numbers, not in sitting behind one person.

JS: Looking at some broader issues, what are your thoughts on the current talks between Tehran and the west on the former’s nuclear ambitions?

MEB: I’m very optimistic about the current talks. 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 can try sanctions, isolation, covert operations, stuxnet worms, or whatever, but that is not going to resolve the situation – in fact it takes it in the opposite direction because it empowers the hardliners, reinforces the us vs them mentality, which is something we need to get rid of. My gut feeling is that Iran is not really interested right now in having a nuclear weapon, and they don’t need a nuclear weapon – they might have thought of it when, with the support of the west, Iraq was using chemical weapons against them, but they want to have the technology which will allow them to produce a nuclear weapon in a very short span of time and in that respect they’re no different from Japan or Brazil.

And you can ask your own country [the UK]: why you are spending billions of dollars modernising Trident [Britain’s nuclear weapons defence system]? [Tony] Blair talked about the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] but he completely misread the NPT because the NPT says ‘yes Britain has nuclear weapons, but you have to get rid of them’. Or when I hear [David] Cameron saying ‘Britain will always have a nuclear deterrent’ – what message is he sending to the rest of the world> The message is that if you have nuclear deterrence it brings you an insurance policy, it brings you power, it brings you prestige. But then you turn around to Iran and tell them ‘don’t even think of touching that technology’. Again it comes down to us vs them, the moral equivalency factor – unless you sit down, reconcile your differences and 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 Ahmedinejad firmly believe it is the only way, sitting down and negotiating – just before I left office I had talks with them to that effect.

I am optimistic, but I hope that the west finally looks at the big picture and understands that psychology and respect is important, and I hope that Iran finally understands that they need to address the concerns of the west and take confidence-building measures. There was an excellent opportunity provided by Brazil and Turkey, a variation of the proposal I made before, but the west decided the cup was half empty whereas in my view the cup was more than three-quarters full. But I am optimistic, there is no other option.

JS: Does the recent aggression on the Korean peninsula worry you?

MEB: Of course it worries me – everywhere there is nuclear material I worry. With 23,000 warheads don’t you think I worry that one of them will be used, either by computer error or human miscalculation or whatever? Especially when many of them are on hair trigger alert, where the US or Russian presidents have half an hour to respond to a reported nuclear attack, when you have all this material alongside an illicit trafficking network – the greatest worry is that an extremist group will get hold of radioactive material, and then forget about any deterrence because for these guys deterrence has no meaning, they are willing to sacrifice their lives in the name of whatever ideology they have.

North Korea is no different from Iran – it needs security assurances, economic assistance, it’s an impoverished country. You have to talk to them, give them incentives, and in both cases in my experience, incentives are much more important than sticks. Try to use a stick and in most cases it doesn’t work – it certainly didn’t work in Iraq. Instead what happens when you apply these draconian sanctions is you end up committing the most egregious violation of human rights, in the name of human rights, as happened in Iraq where many people – old and young and vulnerable – died whilst Saddam continued to enrich himself.

JS: As a career diplomat you must have written your fair share of private memos – what was your reaction to the Wikileaks release of secret American diplomatic cables?

MEB: I’ve always said in public what I’ve said in private, so at a personal level I’m not worried about any of my own memos coming out! But overall I think the release of these cables has undermined the credibility of international institutions, shown how they have been manipulated – by the US at least, and by other major powers. And it undermined the credibility of the US when you see a cable, relevant to me, that they have been wiretapping every conservation I have in order to see if I have some sort of secret deal with Iran. It’s done a lot of damage to international institutions and countries that publicly preach the rule of law and right to privacy, and it has added a good dash of public cynicism towards politicians and the mechanisms of international politics.

JS: Are you therefore saying it’s a good thing that these cables have exposed the duplicity of certain countries, or would it have been better for them to have remained secret?

MEB: Well frankly I have mixed feelings on this. In diplomacy you have to have space to have confidential discussions, as [former UK foreign minister] Malcolm Rifkind has argued recently, and a lot of diplomacy, especially the prophesising, has to be confidential, at least until you reach the outcome. Of course you are a journalist so you’ll love to have everything out in the open, but a private space has to be reserved for diplomacy because if you really want to succeed in resolving the Palestinian issue, the Northern Ireland issue, you need the space to brainstorm ideas freely and you’ll never be able to do that if everything is in the newspaper.

However, it does send a message to those quislings who are saying one thing in public to their people and a completely opposite thing in private. They will have to think twice now. It’s fine to have confidentiality, but you have to be honest with your people.

JS: What about Wikileaks revelations that suggested your IAEA successor Yukiya Amano was ‘solidly in the US court’, presumably in contrast to yourself – what did you make of that?

MEB: I can only talk about my record, I can’t talk about my successor – it’s a question of decorum.

JS: Returning to Egypt, do you see yourself as part of the lineage of Saad Zaghoul and other great Egyptian resistance leaders?

MEB: I don’t know and I don’t care, to be frank. That’s not meant to sound arrogant, but what matters to me is seeing Egypt moving forward. Whether I’ll be remembered as someone who initiated change is not important – I’ve had enough recognition in my lifetime; it’s nice to be recognised but it’s not the most important thing for me right now.

JS: Do you ever regret having launched yourself into the mire of Egyptian politics?

MEB: I don’t. I don’t regret anything. My family would have liked to have seen me at my age doing the things I like. And I love my work; this is something I try to teach people – there is life beyond Egypt, there are major issues that concern us all as a human family. I wrote my wife an SMS from Brasilia saying ‘I feel fulfilled, I feel satisfied being part of this HIV/AIDS campaign’. In Brazil I saw a two month old baby infected with HIV. Maybe it’s because of my formation, but for me humanity is indivisible, so I work on issues like HIV/AIDS, arms control, nuclear disarmament which I dedicated many years of my life to – it’s all about the sanctity of human life. I know that there are ten million poor people with no access to HIV drugs even though they are available – these are issues which go straight to my heart and they are issues I will continue to work on.

I want to say again that I am starting a process here. We have been all emotions, and the Egyptians now are hopefully starting to understand that change will come through rational thinking and not through just emotion. I think I have managed to do two things which are quite significant. First create the environment where everyone understands the need for change – if you talk to anyone, and they know they’re not being listened to by the security apparatus, they will tell you of the need to change. And 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. I have at least proven to the people here, and to the world, that Egypt is full of alternatives, that the country can be run with modern management techniques and commonly accepted human values – respect, tolerance, democracy, transparency, what have you. These two are there; what is left is how to connect these two, how to turn this yearning for change into reality.

We just want to come back to the basics – which we had. In the 40s and 50s Egypt was at the same level of economic development as Korea, as Spain – and when I visited Korea recently my heart ached because I saw the way that country has developed and the way Egypt is today. We are just going backwards. I can’t look at myself in the mirror and think about the country I grew up in – seeing how it was, seeing how it is now, and then just sit back and let it go down the drain. That’s not how I want to end my life. Egypt is not the epicentre of the world but it’s the land I know the most, and I’d like to see its people respected, enjoying a minimum standard of life and holding no fear of walking down the street and demonstrating for their causes.

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