Interview with Mohamed ElBaradei 'This Is a Historical Moment for Egypt'
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.
'A Double Standard Is Being Applied'
SPIEGEL: Many Egyptians say that the West has allied itself too closely with Mubarak, while others say that Mubarak has become a lackey of Western powers. Who is right?
ElBaradei: Take a look at our roll in the Gaza conflict. The Gaza Strip is the world's largest prison. And it is one with two prison guards -- on the one side, Israel seals the area off, and on the other side we have closed our border. Egypt's government has invoked security reasons for doing so -- they fear the Hamas, whose radical positions I do not share, but who came to power in a legitimate election.
SPIEGEL: What would you do differently in the Gaza conflict?
ElBaradei: We must do all that we can to relieve the suffering of the people there. Open the borders, end the blockade! And for the long term, not half-heartedly as is now the case on our side ...
SPIEGEL: ... and as the Israelis are now planning, at least when it comes to deliveries of food items.
ElBaradei: I don't see a danger to our national security through a permanent opening. But I do see a major problem with us continuing to be accomplices to those who humiliate the Palestinian people.
SPIEGEL: Do you still believe in a Palestinian state, that can co-exist with Israel?
ElBaradei: That is the only solution. But for that to happen, a government must come to power in Israel that respects the 1967 borders. That accepts that repression is no solution.
SPIEGEL: And the Palastinians must recognize Israel's right to exist and make sure that no further rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Both sides still have some work to do before the conditions are met for further negotiations.
ElBaradei: Exactly. But the people in the Middle East have the impression that a double standard is being applied, and that things are only ever demanded of the Palestinians. Such behavior stirs up resentment in the people of Egypt.
SPIEGEL: How can you, on the one hand, satisfy the Arab street and, on the other, cooperate with the West and negotiate with Israel?
ElBaradei: Turkey is a member of NATO and partner of the West and Israel. And yet Prime Minister Erdogan has no qualms about supporting an aid flotilla for Gaza that was supposed to breach Israel's sea blockade. The people of the Arab world are celebrating him. Erdogan's photo can be seen everywhere.
SPIEGEL: Political populism doesn't help any country -- just look at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
ElBaradei: I agree. But the so-called moderate regimes in the Middle East have not fulfilled their promises. The people were betrayed by their rulers. And the Arab League, once co-founded by Egypt, with its headquarters in Cairo, long ago became irrelevant through its wavering. What is left of it is a joke. That is why Ahmadinejad, with his radical positions, is so celebrated by the masses ...
SPIEGEL: ... and feared by leaders in the Middle East. He is strongly suspected of trying to build nuclear weapons. You know better than anyone how great the threat is. Your inspectors collected the evidence against Teheran. The CIA now says that Iran could build a bomb within the next two years.
ElBaradei: The Iran situation is multifaceted. Tehran is working on technologies that make the construction of a bomb possible and it is on the path to becoming a virtual nuclear power. But I do not believe that the Iranians are actually producing nuclear weapons.
SPIEGEL: But simply having control over the nuclear fuel cycle puts Iran in a more powerful position and puts neighboring states under pressure.
ElBaradei: That is a status issue that is overrated by the West. It is a matter of prestige. The Iranians are showing the Arab world that technologically, they have caught up with the world's leading nations.
SPIEGEL: It has been alleged that Saudi Arabia and Egypt also have plans to develop nuclear weapons. Is that all misinformation?
ElBaradei: I think it is nonsense. Of course I am very much in favor of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, without Iranian, but also without Israeli, atomic weapons. But in general, the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran is overestimated, some even play it up intentionally. In the competition for regional influence, it is not military hardware that is decisive, but soft power. It is a competition centered on who has the better ideas, the more functional institutions, the more modern society. In Egypt, in any case, the people do not identify with the state.
'I Am Afraid of Violence Breaking Out'
SPIEGEL: How do you plan to lead the people of your country out of this frustration?
ElBaradei: For those who have to wonder where their next meal is coming from, "democracy" remains a meaningless buzzword. First and foremost, standards of living must be improved. Egyptians suffer under cronyism and corruption. They are aware that competence and achievement are not rewarded. The gap between the rich and the poor becomes wider each day. People long for freedom and dignity, and that can only be achieved if the term "democracy" is filled with life.
SPIEGEL: How do you mean that?
ElBaradei: The president can no longer be allowed to be omnipotent. It must become possible to vote him and his government out of office when they fail. We need an independent justice system and a free press. Egyptian citizens must be allowed to elect their representatives in an atmosphere that is free of state pressure, irrespective of religion and gender. Why not have a woman as head of government? Why not a Coptic Christian?
SPIEGEL: And you want to advance this progressive program with the help of the Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood?
ElBaradei: It is true that I have spoken with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and that we discussed the struggle against Mubarak.
SPIEGEL: There is talk of a "strategic partnership."
ElBaradei: I speak with all representatives of the opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood is not allowed to form a party, but their individual candidates take up 20 percent of the seats in parliament. They enjoy respect because they are socially active. They have been portrayed as allies of bin Laden, which is complete nonsense. One doesn't have to agree with their conservative-religious ideas, but they are a part of our society. They have every right to participate in the development of this society if they pursue their path in a democratic manner, free of violence.
SPIEGEL: But that is exactly what observers have their doubts about. And they believe that the Islamists are using you to get into power.
ElBaradei: That won't happen. I take the Muslim Brotherhood at their word. Egypt is a country shaped by Islam. I will only avail myself as an agent for democratic change.
SPIEGEL: Are democracy and Islam really compatible?
ElBaradei: In one sura in the Koran, it says that a ruler must consult his people, only then can he rule justly. One can start there. At the end of the day, Islam, like any religion, is what you make out of it.
SPIEGEL: In October, there are parliamentary elections in Egypt ...
ElBaradei: ... and they should absolutely be monitored by international election observers, as should the presidential elections next year.
SPIEGEL: The whole of Egypt is now wondering: Are you going to run for president?
ElBaradei: At my age?
SPIEGEL: On election day you will be 69, and Mubarak will already be 83. One can't really speak of a youth movement unless Mubarak sends his son, the banker Gamal Mubarak, into the race.
ElBaradei: I have met Gamal a number of times. I cannot say that I find him disagreeable. Nothing, however, indicates that he would be an improvement over his father.
SPIEGEL: In other words, you are throwing your hat into the ring.
ElBaradei: It would require a change in the laws governing political parties and electoral rolls. Fair access to the media has to be guaranteed. And, of course, I would have to be allowed to register my movement as a party. We would have to collect money in order to stage campaign appearances. But let me be clear: If the conditions are fulfilled and if the people really demand that I run, then I won't leave them in the lurch.
SPIEGEL: Otherwise the "historic moment" will just elapse?
ElBaradei: No. One doesn't necessarily have to be in office to be an agent of change. In one of my Internet contributions, I wrote that we will overcome our fears, that civil society will take action and we will tear down walls, just like the Germans.
SPIEGEL: Were you not allowed to stand for election, what would you recommend voters to do?
ElBaradei: Should the rules not be changed, should there be no chance of a fair campaign, then I will call for a boycott.
SPIEGEL: And would you also call for the Egyptian people to demonstrate -- even though that could end in a bloodbath?
ElBaradei: I am indeed concerned that the regime will gamble away the opportunity for a peaceful transition. I am afraid of violence breaking out. For exactly that reason, I have not yet called for mass demonstrations or for civil disobedience. The regime should know: One can arrest many demonstrators, but one cannot arrest an entire people.
SPIEGEL: In your opinion, which is more difficult: Preventing Iran from making a nuclear bomb or bringing democracy to Egypt?
ElBaradei: Both are difficult. Both are possible.
SPIEGEL: Will we be seeing you in the presidential palace in Cairo, come the autumn of 2011?
ElBaradei: As André Malraux once said, that which is least expected is normally what ends up happening.
SPIEGEL: Mr. ElBaradei, we thank you for this interview.