Interview with Mohamed ElBaradei 'This Is a Historical Moment for Egypt'
In a SPIEGEL interview, Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mohamed ElBaradei, 68, discusses the urge for change in his home country, possible cooperation with Islamists in the next election and the prospects of driving autocratic Hosni Mubarak out of office.
SPIEGEL: Mr. ElBaradei, some six months ago, you announced in an interview with us that you wanted to retreat from public life. After 12 years as the chief of the United Nations nuclear weapons inspectors in Vienna, you only wanted to give lectures. Now you are challenging President Hosni Mubarak. What happened?
ElBaradei: The decisive moment was my return to Cairo in February. I really only wanted to visit my country again and spend a few weeks at my house here near the pyramids. But then, 1,500 people were standing there at the airport. It was a cross-section of our society: students, business people, workers and surprisingly many women, including Egyptian women with head scarves and veiled faces. Some called out: "This country must be changed, please help us make that happen!" Others held signs reading: "ElBaradei for President!" It electrified me.
SPIEGEL: And that's why you changed plans? According to the constitution, you can't even become a candidate for the presidency without your own party.
ElBaradei: I have traveled through the cities and through the villages. I was shaken by the backwardness of my country, deeply moved by the people's palpable desire for change, overpowered by the sympathy and enthusiasm I was met with. And then it was the regime itself that gave me no other choice than to become politically active. With the help of the state-controlled media, they launched an unprecedented smear campaign against me, denounced me as a foreign agent.
SPIEGEL: You know what happens to challengers of Mubarak. The last man to contest Mubarak for the presidency landed in jail.
ElBaradei: I was in Alexandria a short time ago with Ayman Nour at a protest event dedicated to the victims of the regime's torture. I'm privileged in that I can rely somewhat on the fact that my international recognition protects me. Of course my wife and my children are afraid of violent attempts against me. But my family knows that I have no choice: We live in a special time of awakening. This is a historical moment for Egypt ...
SPIEGEL: ... in which many see you as a kind of messiah.
ElBaradei: I neither can nor want to be a savior. This mentality of sitting back and waiting for a savior is exactly what I am fighting against. The people have to effectuate change themselves and they have to dedicate themselves to it -- that is the only way to achieve decisive progress. And that is exactly what is happening these days, with a breathtaking mobilization in completely new ways.
SPIEGEL: How so?
ElBaradei: Volunteers from all over the country, from every level of society are joining us. They ask: What can I do? There are already a good 15,000 supporters who are fanning out in the cities and villages to inform people about the "National Movement for Reform." Many are joining us in our signature-gathering campaign and are saying with their names and passport numbers: We have had enough, we want change! And because our state of emergency laws prevent more than five people from assembling for a demonstration, we are creating a virtual town hall through the media.
SPIEGEL: You've become a blogger?
ElBaradei: A short time ago, I didn't even know what Twitter and Facebook were. Now I use the new media and we have almost 30,000 permanent users on our website and two Facebook groups with 250,000 users each. Things are starting to move in my country.
SPIEGEL: Why is this only starting now?
ElBaradei: The country has been governed under state of emergency laws for the past 30 years. The security services are omnipotent, the police act arbitrarily. This has created a culture of fear. Should a figure be needed to represent this awakening, I will do everything I can to be a catalyst for this change.
SPIEGEL: For a long time though, as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and as the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2005, you were something for the regime to be proud of.
ElBaradei: Oh yes. Just four years ago, President Mubarak awarded me this country's highest medal and gushingly praised me as an outstanding son of Egypt to the point that it was embarrassing for me. Since I have become actively involved in the Egyptian political opposition, the state authorities have, in a subtle way controlled my public exposure, such as appearances on television. Some of my supporters were detained, and hoteliers who offered me a meeting room were pressured to cancel the booking.
SPIEGEL: Many Egyptians refer to Mubarak as the "Pharaoh" because he has been ruling the country from his palace for almost 30 years now. How do you see him?
ElBaradei: Mubarak is a one-man show without checks and balances, with no real contact with the people, who has allowed Egypt to become a police state. The regent of a country that has fallen deeply, dramatically lost stature and forfeited influence.
SPIEGEL: Iran and Turkey appear to dominate in the Middle East. Has Egypt now been relegated to playing second fiddle?
ElBaradei: Cairo was once the undisputed cultural and economic center of this region. Today close to one-third of the 80 million Egyptians are illiterate, more than one out of every five people is forced to survive on less than $1 a day. But, according to Transparency International, we have a leading position in the list of the world's most corrupt states. Egypt is even on a list of countries threatened to become failed states -- that just shows how far things have gone with us.
SPIEGEL: That is a Herculean task for the next president.
ElBaradei: Yes, because foreign policy and domestic policy can no longer be separated. A state that wants to have international clout must have a lively and open civil society -- only then will it be attractive elsewhere.
SPIEGEL: Nonetheless, the West still sees Mubarak as a partner. Despite his deficits when it comes to democracy, he is seen as a guarantee for a certain amount of stability. No other country outside of Israel receives as much American aid.
ElBaradei: You are touching on a dilemma for the West: Mubarak has convinced the United States and Europe that they only have a choice between two options -- either they accept this authoritarian regime, or Egypt will fall into the hands of the likes of bin Laden's al-Qaida. Of course that is not exactly true. Mubarak uses the specter of Islamist terror to prevent a third way: the country's democratization. But Washington needs to know that the support of a repressive leadership only creates the appearance of stability. In truth, it promotes the radicalization of the people.
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