ElBaradei on Democracy's Chances in Egypt: 'We Could Experience an Arab Spring'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradeiexplains whyPresident Hosni Mubarak should leave Egypt as soon as possible, how Israel should view the popular revolts across the Arab world and how he could go from being an "agent of change" to Egypt's next president.

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei during a visit to Cairo's Tahrir Square: "The longer things continue on this way with Mubarak, the clearer it becomes that the country is imploding both politically and economically." Zoom
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Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei during a visit to Cairo's Tahrir Square: "The longer things continue on this way with Mubarak, the clearer it becomes that the country is imploding both politically and economically."

SPIEGEL: Mr. ElBaradei, is Egypt in danger of a civil war?

ElBaradei: I see this danger. We've experienced a complete collapse of public order and bloody, sometimes even fatal assaults. These were carried out by provocateurs, most of whom were recruited by the intelligence service and the police.

SPIEGEL: Do you have any proof of that?

ElBaradei: Yes, the culprits took off their uniforms so that they could not be recognized. Some of them still had their identification papers on them when they were seized by the demonstrators. The only way they could have caused widespread panic on horses and camels was with the government's support. They robbed passersby and journalists, and they tried to prevent the demonstrators from getting supplies.

SPIEGEL: Shouldn't you be headed down to Tahrir Square to try to use your authority to calm people down there?

ElBaradei: I was there once, and things broke out in turmoil. I need to watch out for my own safety. There are people who think they'd be doing the regime a favor by killing me. The longer things continue on this way with Mubarak, the clearer it becomes that the country is imploding both politically and economically. Mubarak must go; not at some point, but now. I believe the Americans are also getting very impatient.

SPIEGEL: You've given Mubarak an ultimatum. It expired on Friday, which the demonstrators dubbed the "day of departure" ...

ElBaradei: ... and I will say it again: He must go away quickly. I'm sure that some Arab country will take him in. I've heard from Bahrain. If he still has one spark of patriotism, this is his last chance.

SPIEGEL: You know Mubarak personally. How does he think?

ElBaradei: I've met with him on a few occasions. We discussed Egyptian foreign policy. The conversations weren't at all uncomfortable. Still, I believe he is afflicted with the malady of dictators. No one within his circle dares to contradict him anymore, to tell him the truth. I think it has gotten very lonely around him.

SPIEGEL: So who should convince him he has to go?

ElBaradei: The Egyptian people. Now that the culture of fear has been vanquished in Egypt, the people know that they can accomplish everything. I am very proud of my fellow countrymen. Just a few months back, when I was at an event with my brother, I turned to him and said, depressed: 'Dead souls; the Egyptians are all dead souls.' Today, I look young people in the eyes and I see self-confidence, a spirit of optimism and a belief in what the future holds.

SPIEGEL: Did you expect that would ever happen?

ElBaradei: I had hoped it would, but I didn't see it coming -- at least not at this speed. A people that was frozen in a political coma just a few months ago is now a model for all the world's oppressed peoples. It's truly astounding.

SPIEGEL: Do you think it is more of an advantage or disadvantage that the movement doesn't have a real leader? Or would you go so far as to say that you ...

ElBaradei: ... no, I'm not that presumptuous. It is a broad-based movement. I can't say that I am its leader. I'm happy to be an agent of change, and I'm working closely with the demonstrators. Young people, in particular, should be praised for what they've accomplished. I'm prepared to advise them on how to transform their successes on the street into concrete political results. Three of their leaders will be coming to visit me for this very purpose right after we're done talking.

SPIEGEL: Very little has been said recently about your National Alliance for Change, which includes members of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in addition to students. Are you still representing that group when you negotiate with the government?

ElBaradei: Yes. Yesterday, I spoke with their representatives once again. But the scorched earth policy will only end when the conditions are right, when the president is gone. We do not cede any legitimacy to representatives of the regime who support Mubarak.

SPIEGEL: Newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman has already entered into a dialogue with opposition leaders -- but not with you or any representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood.

ElBaradei: I've heard that, as well. He met with representatives of the established parties ...

SPIEGEL: ... and, in doing so, has started driving a wedge into the opposition ...

ElBaradei: ... but these parties don't have much to say. The most important forces are the demonstrators and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which are the best organized groupings. I would prefer to speak with the army leadership soon to explore how we could achieve a peaceful transition without bloodshed. With a new constitution and the dissolving of the current parliament. How we can build a modern, democratic state.

SPIEGEL: Do you see any parallels between the toppling of the regimes in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and the ongoing popular uprisings in the Arab world?

ElBaradei: Absolutely. Both are major, historic breaks. What's currently playing out in the Arab world -- from Tunisia all the way to Yemen -- resembles a wildfire. I have no doubt that the transition in Egypt will be accompanied by a transition in the entire Middle East. We could experience an Arab Spring ...

SPIEGEL: ... which hopefully won't end as tragically as the Prague Spring of 1968, when Warsaw Pact troops violently suppressed political liberalization in Czechoslovakia. The Israelis seem more worried than anyone.

ElBaradei: There are a few myths that Mubarak has successfully disseminated in the West and in Israel. First, that if he falls, there will be immediate chaos. Second, that if Egypt transitions into a democracy, the peace treaty with Israel will be annulled and we will be on the verge of entering into a new war in the Middle East. And, third, that if there is a transformation, an ayatollah la Iran will take over in Cairo. All of that is nonsense.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean you can't sympathize with people's nervousness about Egyptian Islamists?

ElBaradei: I don't think like the Muslim Brotherhood, and I don't share their conservative religious ideology. Incidentally, they are not a majority; instead they have the potential to win about 20 percent of the Egyptian vote. Nor do they have ties with al-Qaida. They have sworn off violence and agreed to play by democratic rules.

SPIEGEL: Are you now saying that a government that included participation by the Muslim Brotherhood would continue on with Mubarak's policies toward Israel?

ElBaradei: No. Something the Israelis also need to grasp is that it's impossible to make peace with a single man. At the moment, they have a peace treaty with Mubarak, but not one with the Egyptian people. The Israelis should understand that it is in their long-term interest to have a democratic Egypt as a neighbor, and that it is prudent to acknowledge the legitimate interests of the Palestinians and to grant them their own state."

SPIEGEL: What should a new president change about Egypt's relationship with Israel? Would you go to Israel to meet with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's hard-line prime minister?

ElBaradei: I have already made earlier trips to Israel. But, when it comes to politics, I'm always much more concerned with the substance than the form. Of course conditions have to be made better for the people in the Gaza Strip, and the blockade needs to be lifted immediately. I always tell my Israeli friends: 'It's also in your security interest to treat the Palestinians as partners, to grant them rights and to not humiliate them.'

SPIEGEL: And, last but not least, do you think you will be Egypt's next president?

ElBaradei: That's not what I'm striving for. But if people's expectations are directed toward me, I will also not disappoint them. I would like to remain independent and maintain a certain distance -- both from the Muslim Brotherhood and US policy.

Interview conducted by Erich Follath; translated from the German by Josh Ward

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