An exclusive interview with Egypt's catalyst for change on the turmoil in Cairo.
- By Blake Hounshell
Blake Hounshell is managing editor at Foreign Policy, having formerly been Web editor. Hounshell oversees ForeignPolicy.com and has commissioned and edited numerous cover stories for the print magazine, including National Magazine Award finalist "Why Do They Hate Us?" by Mona Eltahawy. He also edits The Cable, FP's first foray into daily original reporting, and was editor of Colum Lynch's Turtle Bay, which in 2011 won a National Magazine award for best reporting in a digital format.
Blake joined Foreign Policy in 2006 after living in Cairo, where he studied Arabic, missed his Steelers finally win one for the thumb, and worked for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. Blake was a 2011 finalist for the Livingston Awards prize for young journalists for his reporting on the Arab uprisings, and his Twitter feed was named one of Time magazine's "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011." Under his leadership, in 2008, Passport, FP's flagship blog, won Media Industry Newsletter's "Best of the Web" award in the blog category. Along with Elizabeth Dickinson, he edited Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future, the memoirs of former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.
A graduate of Yale University, Blake speaks mangled Arabic and French, is an avid runner, and lives in Washington with his wife, musician Sandy Choi, and their toddler, David. Follow him on Twitter @blakehounshell.
In his tastefully decorated villa in an exclusive suburban development to the west of Cairo, and just a few kilometers north of the Giza pyramids, Mohamed ElBaradei holds court nearly around the clock, meeting with opposition activists and journalists as he helps plot the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial regime, now rocked on its heels by three weeks of protests that nobody — including the former diplomat and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency himself — predicted.
ElBaradei, a tall, articulate technocrat who often sounds more like a detached analyst than a political leader, is an unlikely figure to be leading a revolt organized on the ground and over the Internet by a loose amalgam of youth groups and unaffiliated activists. Although he boasts nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter, he speaks somewhat awkwardly about social networking sites, visibly searching for the right terminology. (His latest tweet: “Entire nation is on the streets. Only way out is for regime to go. People power can’t be crushed. We shall prevail. Still hope army can join.”)
Yet of all the local political figures claiming to speak for the tens of thousands of demonstrators occupying Tahrir Square — something he is generally careful not to do — it is ElBaradei who has remained the most consistent and unyielding in his condemnation of Egypt’s six decades under thinly veiled military rule and the gross corruption, socioeconomic ills, and political instability the Mubarak regime is leaving behind.
From his first return to Egypt last February, ElBaradei denounced the entire system as unsalvageable, calling instead for a nationwide campaign for genuine political reform. While Western reporters probed for signs that ElBaradei sought to contest the 2011 presidential election, his youthful supporters gathered more than a million signatures in favor of a seven-point reform platform, building a surprisingly effective grassroots organization and, as ElBaradei puts it, helping to break the “culture of fear” in Egypt.
While ElBaradei has not ruled out a run for the presidency under certain conditions, he seems to recognize that he’s not the kind of populist leader Egypt’s teeming masses have typically rallied around (a recent poll estimates his support at around 3 percent). In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, conducted at his home on Thursday, Feb. 10, ElBaradei described his role as more of a coach, dismissed the Egyptian government’s efforts to negotiate a way out of the current crisis as “faulty,” and urged the West to declare itself firmly on the side of the Egyptian people — before it’s too late:
Foreign Policy: You’ve always said that your role is to be a catalyst for change. You’re not a politician; you’re not a grassroots organizer. But now that change is starting to happen with these huge demonstrations, how do you see your role evolving?
Mohamed ElBaradei: I always said I’m an agent for change. I’m not a grassroots organizer; that is clear. I believe in a division of labor. I’m not trained to organize the grassroots, and grassroots has to come from the grassroots.
But I never said I’m not a politician. Obviously I’ve been practicing politics, if you like, for the past 30, 40 years in different [forms] either through my International Atomic Energy Agency work or before that in the diplomatic service. And that essentially is what I’ve been doing in the last year; it’s political work.
[As for] my role, since I left the agency and since I came here last February, immediately after I left the agency people asked me to participate in the process of change. Obviously, there has been a process going on for at least five years when people started.… You have seen small protests, demonstrations, but it’s always been 50 to 100 people, you know. And the government was tolerating that as a sign of freedom of assembly [laughs] and never really thought that they would be a threat at any time.
I came in February. I realized that if change were to happen, it had to come at the hands of the young people. Sixty percent of the Egyptians are 30 and below. They are the ones who have no hidden agenda.
I really had very little trust in the so-called elite. These were people — some of them have become corrupted by the regime, have become part of the regime. Many of the rest have become, again, sort of.… Fear has become so engrained in their souls, and they have families to care for, and they have seen that the regime has continued to be extremely repressive: torture, detentions, and so on. So there was a lot of culture of fear, at least for the middle-aged people who have families. [People] have lost hope, also, after 60 years. They despair that no matter what they do it won’t change anything.
So between people who have been co-opted by the regime and people have been afraid and desperate, the only people left were really the young people and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are organized but have been subjected to the most cruel treatment for the last 30 years. University professors have been thrown into jail for no reason, except I think the regime has been using them [as part of] their act of deception with the West: You know, these are people who if they were ever to be allowed to take part in the political process they will turn Egypt into an Iran-style religious state or whatever form of religious extremism.
I didn’t know any of the Muslim Brothers before; I’d never met one of them before I came here. They’re a religiously conservative group, but they haven’t been practicing any violence, at least for the last 50 years, and even before that, during the monarchy, it was for political reasons, not religious reasons. And they’re not a majority. But they have credibility at least in the street because they were the ones providing social services when government was unable to do that: health care, food for the needy. And of course they had political space, quite open, because there were no organized parties who were able to counter them with their vision, whether social democrats, liberals, leftists, what have you. There were some parties, but they came out of the womb of the regime and had no influence and most of them had no credibility.
And, of course, as a result of 60 years of repression, people lost their ability to work together. There has been a culture of distrust. Completely. Nobody trusted anybody else, and [people were] unable to understand that rational thinking and not emotion is the way to go forward. [There’s an] inability to work as a team. That’s something which we still see today — an inability to see that you need to work together, the synergy that comes with working together. These sort of values have been lost with a regime that has destroyed all the basic values that Egypt used to have.
FP: Are you hopeful that the youth groups will be able to organize a unified coalition?
MB: As I said, I said that in the last year my role was to explain to the young people — these are the ones who see no future, no hope, no education, nothing that gives meaning to their lives. And when you saw them they were trying to emigrate illegally to New York and drown; then they tried again. Their lives have been reduced to zero. Basically they tried to find an alternative outside the country and died in the process.
My message to them is to try to make them feel that they are no different from other people, that they have all the tools, all the talents. The only thing missing is that they are able to organize and understand that our strength is in our numbers; that’s one of the messages I kept sending to them through tweets, through meeting with them, and understanding that it’s only through democracy that they will be able to change this whole system. Even their economic and social rights, the gateway to that is through them restoring the will of the people and not the will of the group of people who have continued to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of the country — with rampant corruption, opaqueness, all that comes with an authoritarian system.
Twitter and Facebook were the media, and that was a part of it. We mobilized 1 million signatures. In this culture of fear, I tried to tell them that what we can do is through peaceful change and use our power as people by signing a petition basically saying we need to restore our humanity through free and fair elections, democracy. I called for boycotting the [parliamentary] elections, and I called for peaceful demonstrations if the regime doesn’t listen to us. And in fact the regime did not listen whatsoever.
FP: Do you think they’re listening now?
MB: Well, absolutely. Unfortunately, what you see now with the regime saying “these are legitimate rights” — the right for people to run for election, judicial supervision, the need to abolish the emergency law — unfortunately, they only started to listen when people went to the street.
And of course, all of a sudden, even the Muslim Brotherhood, who had been banned, were invited to be part of the political process. So, they have no shame. They have no shame. For a year, they didn’t even want to discuss one single.… Their reaction was complete defiance, complete fear[mongering] because they have no argument to make, and all they have done is [launch] a Goebbels-like propaganda machine against me — you know, that I’m coming with every foreign agenda that they can think of.
FP: You’re an Israeli-Iranian agent…
MB: Yeah, Israeli-Iranian agent, American agent, anti-Islam, pro-Muslim extremist — everything you can think of — without even discussing one single issue like why can’t we have guarantees for a free and fair election, why can’t we have the right to establish parties, freedom of the press, all the stuff which is common sense. But they were not [discussing that] because they know that change will mean their demise. [There’s a] military mentality, security mentality that has been going on for 60 years and going from bad to worse.
When you read yesterday in Voice of America that Mubarak’s fortune is $70 billion, and this is coming from the Voice of America, and when you see four or five Egyptians on Forbes richest-people list in a country where the per capita income is $1,200, and at least 40 percent of people live on less than $2 a day, around 30 percent of people are illiterate, when Egypt is classified as a failed state.… I mean we are rock bottom in every indicator of human development.
That is the situation. They were really making fun of social media, saying, “These are the guys of the virtual world” —
FP: They’re not laughing now —
MB: Yeah, and communications on social networks turned into a physical presence on the streets. Nobody — including those who organized this demonstration on the 25th, 28th; now it’s becoming like a snowball — nobody expected it, not even the ones who were administering these Facebook pages, of course including myself. Nobody expected the numbers. The largest demonstration — which took place when this guy who got tortured and killed, Khaled Said, and I called for a moment of silence in Alexandria — it was 4,000 people, and this was supposed to be a groundbreaking record.
Then we saw this avalanche.
FP: So what was the difference between the demonstration in Alexandria and January 25?
MB: I think people started to gradually get self-confidence, realize that we would sacrifice our lives because our lives have no meaning; we are ready to take risks because other than that we are doomed. There was a tipping point. Nobody saw that tipping point coming. But I think it’s an accumulation of 60 years of repression and torture. Torture has become common practice, the disappearance of people.
So why did the tipping point on that date? Why the tipping point in Tunisia when a guy sets himself on fire? Nobody could know; it just happened. It’s not surprising that it happened, but did anybody expect that it would happen on that day and continue with such intensity? Nobody could read that. But of course, I knew, and in my tweets a few months ago I said that this year is going to be a decisive year. But I didn’t know in what way, although I saw the cloud coming. I saw the anger; I saw the sense of humiliation, the lack of hope, lack of dignity.
A couple of months ago I went to a wake, and I was looking at people sitting in front of me. I told my brother, “I look in the eyes of these people and they’re dead. Dead souls. They lost every inch or iota of humanity, dignity, sense of freedom, sense of confidence — everything was dead.”
I went to Tahrir Square last week and you see different people. You see people for the first time feeling they are free. They don’t know what to do with this freedom, but the joy of feeling free, the joy of feeling proud, the joy of having confidence that we managed to essentially destroy this regime that has been entrenched for 60 years, a military dictatorship, it’s melting away, and they saw the regime grudgingly making one concession after another.
FP: But so far there have been no fundamental concessions.
MB: So far, I think the whole process is a faulty process. You don’t get the fox to be in charge of the chicken coop. You don’t give the outgoing regime — which has been practicing dictatorship, is an authoritarian system, it’s a bunch of military people — the task of changing Egypt into a second republic, a new Egypt with democracy, freedom, rights, etc.
I don’t think they even understand what it means to be a democracy. As you heard Omar Suleiman saying, “We don’t have the culture [of democracy]…”
FP: So you don’t have any confidence that he can be the steward of a democratic transition?
MB: No. I don’t have any confidence. The process is completely faulty, the way I see it. They don’t understand, let alone are willing to move Egypt into democracy, unless we keep kicking their behinds.
And that’s what happened. You saw Mubarak’s first statement was saying, “We’ll give you a new government” — same old, worn-out tactics. A new government but no change of policy and the same people from his own party. They were kicked out and they said they would change the Constitution to allow more people to run. They got kicked out again and then they would say, “Well, Mubarak will not run.” Then they abolished the whole leadership of the party.
It is not the sign of a regime, or whatever’s left of it, that is ready to buy into real change. They are talking, again, to the established parties who have no influence, have no credibility in the street, most of them. The people who staged that revolution are not sitting around the table. The young people are not sitting around the table.
FP: What would your advice be to the young people in Tahrir Square? What do you tell them when you meet with them? To stay there until their demands are met?
MB: Yes, of course. I tell them that we have to keep pushing, we have to keep pushing until the demands are met. The first demand I think, and it’s becoming almost an obsession, is for Mubarak to go. And that is, it’s an emotional issue. But people understand that the regime is Mubarak, it’s one person. And the departure of Mubarak will signal that we are ushered into a new Egypt. I think this is nonnegotiable. I don’t think they will leave the street. And it’s not only Tahrir; [it’s] everywhere else. This has become the No. 1 demand. And the demand, of course, that they take charge of this process; it’s the incoming regime who should take charge of the transitional period and not the outgoing regime. There is a huge issue of credibility. There is no credibility in either Mubarak or Suleiman or anybody who is associated with that regime.
It’s an opaque process; it’s a monologue; it’s not a dialogue. And they still think they are in power while everybody knows they are completely weak and the regime is melting away.
So, my advice now to the young people and others is that we need to take charge of this transitional period of a year, and I am suggesting a presidential council of three people, a transitional government of national salvation, national unity under a caretaker government of people who have sterling reputations, have experience, and then prepare the country for free and fair elections. Abolish this Constitution, which is not worth the paper it’s written on. Abolish the rigged parliament. We have to go through whatever you call it, popular legitimacy, revolutionary legitimacy.
Unfortunately, this is the only way out to build up again the pillars [of democracy]: a new constitution which is really democratic, with a president who has checks and balances [on him], limited power, a true parliament that has the power of the purse and oversight, an independent judiciary — all that comes with any democratic system.
But I don’t think that process is working. Unfortunately, again, many of the Western countries including the United States have been continuing to provide life support to [Mubarak]…
FP: Let’s talk about the United States for a minute. You’ve been critical of Obama for not calling for Mubarak to leave; you said it was a “farce” that he hadn’t.
MB: And the same with many other Western countries. Events have gone so fast, you know, nobody predicted.… It’s like the 1979 Iranian Revolution in that things took everybody by surprise, including us even. And they had to adjust their policy every half-hour. As you remember, it started with Hillary Clinton saying, “We assess that the government of Egypt is stable.” I took issue with that on CNN; I said she must have a different definition of stability than I do — stability meaning repression, poverty.
Anyway, she changed her position a couple of days afterward and said, “We now listen to the aspirations of the Egyptian people”; Obama said, “I hear you young people” and “the transition should begin right now.” Basically, he said in a diplomatic way, “Mubarak, you need to listen and go.”
Mubarak was told by everybody, in every language, in every different way of putting it: “You need to go.” And for some reason, he’s still hanging around.
FP: Well now it seems the United States has decided that it wants to see Omar Suleiman preside over this transition process that you don’t have any confidence in —
MB: Correct. Frank Wisner, who was sent here and was a friend of Mubarak and works for a lobbying firm for the regime, said Mubarak must stay. Luckily, the United States said he only represents himself, but I was told there are many other Wisners in Washington, saying, “Well, he was our ally, providing stability” — which of course, if you are here, you see that he hasn’t provided anything but increasing the trend of radicalization in Egypt. The repression, and sense of marginalization, is leading into radicalization. People lost their identification with the state and tried to wrap themselves around a distorted form of religion, many of them.
It was a ticking bomb. It was a ticking bomb ready to explode. I knew that, but when it was going to explode, nobody knew. They were still operating under the fiction that Egypt will turn into chaos when Mubarak leaves. Well, of course that’s damnation of a dictatorship because [in a democracy] people come and go and there shouldn’t be any instability.… Secondly, the Muslim Brotherhood are a bogeyman [that will take over the country]. And third, that immediately Egypt will go into full opposition against the United States and declare war on Israel and abolish the peace treaty.
All these are fictions. A lot of the sentiments of the people are not going to change. The fact that they support the Palestinian issue, the fact that they need to see a Palestinian state, they feel that there are double standards that are applied to the Middle East, in Palestine and Iraq and Afghanistan — this is not going to change.
But if you have a democracy, you will then be able to have a government representative of the people and be able to have peace. It will be a durable peace. What Israel doesn’t understand is that, yes, they have peace, but it’s a pseudo-peace. Talk to any Egyptian; where is the interaction between people? There will be peace when we have peace between the Israeli and the Egyptian people. And of course, it takes two to tango, or three, with the Americans.
Anyway, these foreign-policy issues, regional issues, are not going to change because of democracy. In fact, democracy will enable a meaningful dialogue on behalf of the Egyptian people, a different narrative, different values based on moderation and modernity and not what you see now: extremism and hype and lack of understanding. And the regime is perpetuating that.
FP: Do you worry that if the regime is able to crush the protest movement, that you’ll see a further radicalization of the country?
MB: Oh, absolutely. I think if they try to do that.… I mean, now it’s the whole of Egypt going out. Tomorrow you’ll probably see something like 10 million people. It’s the entire country of Egypt that is going out. If you try to crush them, you will then get into a bloody revolution. As JFK said, if you crush a peaceful revolution you will get a bloody revolution.
There’s no going back. That is clear and has to be clear. My message is that the West now has to be very clear that they are siding with the people. They are not the ones who are going to change the system, but they have to understand that what’s at stake are universal values. And if they want to solve it — and whatever trust they have here is very little, not only in Egypt but the rest of the Arab world — they have to show that they mean what they say when they talk about democracy, human rights, rule of law, what have you, and not continue to try to have a balancing act, you know, that maybe we can try to give it to Mubarak and Co. to manage that, or maybe again Suleiman.
I mean, as a person people could respect him, but he is not going to … he doesn’t have the trust or the understanding of what needs to be done. And they [the West] have to get the process of change in the hands of the people who staged the revolution: work with them, help them, and provide advice, but don’t be perceived as hanging on to a dictator who has pulverized the country.