How do you change a country in which the opposition suffers violent repression? Gero von Randow and Michael Thumann spoke to the Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, about democracy in Egypt and the role of Islam
What has gone wrong in Egypt?
Mohamed ElBaradei: The people in this country are powerless; they can't elect their representatives; they have no say over changes in power; the justice system is not properly developed; the president has too much power. In effect, Egypt is a one-party state. The biggest opposition party in parliament has one percent of the seats. And all this has been cemented for over thirty years with emergency legislation.
There's corruption, lack of transparency, nepotism. The rich live in gated communities, while 42 percent of the people have to do with a dollar a day. We have whole airports for private jets, while many Egyptians get around on donkeys. Thirty percent of Egyptians are illiterate. People have lost all hope and see no future for themselves. Anyone who can leave the country does so.
Is Egypt ready for democracy?
Mohamed ElBaradei: The people are ready for democracy. They know that they are suffering from oppression and that they are held back from development. The government's strategy consists of warning the people: change is complicated and dangerous. You know, of course, that authoritarian governments always speak about stability, but where is the stability when the people don't trust their own government? Look at Eastern Europe or Latin America: the transition to democracy is possible if the mentality changes and the government is prepared to go along that road.
Are Islam and democracy compatible?
Mohamed ElBaradei: Islam, like any religion, is what you make of it. In the past, it's true, fully developed civil societies have not emerged under Islam. There have been autocracies with absolute rulers. But that was once the case in Europe too, and it's changed in Europe. Why should Islam be different? In a Sura in the Koran it says: "The ruler must rule through consultation." We can start from there. After all, some Muslim countries have functioning democracies, like Turkey or Indonesia.
Turkish democracy is based on a western model. Is the West your model?
Mohamed ElBaradei: Democracy doesn't have a location. It's based on freedom of opinion, religious freedom, freedom from fear and want. These values are universal.
Are there models in Egypt itself?
Mohamed ElBaradei: We once had a democratic system, until 1952. It wasn't perfect, but all the same. Egypt had a multi-party system and a parliamentary democracy. Then the army took power in 1952.
Some people fear that democracy in Egypt would bring the Muslim Brothers to power.
Mohamed ElBaradei: One doesn't have to agree with the Muslim Brothers intellectually, but they are part of society, and they have the right to take part in it. The Muslim Brothers are described as allies of Osama bin Laden – total rubbish. They're conservative, it's true; they look inwards; but they are non-violent, they're not even trying to gain power. They have 20 percent of the seats in parliament, but they're not even recognised as a party – that's just a policy of putting your head in the sand. No, they have to be much more involved! They have great credibility because, with their excellent organisational structure, they do a lot for the basic needs of the people: health care, education, emergency assistance.
Do you work with them?
Mohamed ElBaradei: When I went to Egypt some weeks ago, I had a meeting with the leader of their group in parliament. That was the first time I had ever met a Muslim Brother. He spoke against religious or military political parties, and spoke in favour of a civilian state. I'll take him on his word, whether I believe it all or not.
You've been living for many years outside Egypt, Now you want to go into politics there. How?
Mohamed ElBaradei: I come as an agent of change. I want to say out loud what mistakes have been made, and I want to help Egypt move towards a democratic system, with clean institutions.
As head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, one of your strengths was your precision. Politicians have rather to deal with emotions. Is this really a suitable role for you?
Mohamed ElBaradei: You know, Egypt is a victim of emotions. Everything is feelings. You can't speak about anything properly: running the government, corruption, the economy. You need rational thinking for all that. But you are right: this is something I have to learn, and I will have to change my style.
Kissing babies, going to dinner parties ...
Mohamed ElBaradei: I admit it, it's not my thing. I'm not a party animal, but of course I will go to parties, in order to speak about the important problems. And there's a lot of speaking to be done. You know, in the Middle East, things are often described as being either black or white. But in real life, many things are grey, and you have to navigate your way through the pros and cons. I do that perhaps in a language which is unusual for many people. But they seem to like it, and they are gathering themselves around me.
How do you get in touch with Egyptians?
Mohamed ElBaradei: I was astonished when I went into the countryside, in the North-East, to Mansura. Really poor people came up to me, and embraced me and kissed me; I can only explain it by saying that they must suddenly feel some hope – even though they know I don't think like them, I don't live like them, I don't behave like them.
What was it that surprised you?
Mohamed ElBaradei: The extent of the hopelessness, the desperation, and the fear. I can quite understand it. If I had led such a life as my fellow-citizens have led, who knows how I would behave today. But I am not the product of thirty or forty years of life in Egypt, and I don't hide that fact. In any case I seem to get on better with the poor people than I do with many from the elite. You have to be more careful with them: most of them have something to lose.
Are you going to stand for the presidency?
Mohamed ElBaradei: At my age? That's certainly not my priority. The modernisation of Egypt will need plenty of time, one or two generations. There is so much to change: values, education, infrastructure. I'd like to contribute to starting off the process. On the other hand, just to make it clear, if the people really want me to be a candidate, I shan't let them down.
Can one change the country if one doesn't hold office? Is that possible?
Mohamed ElBaradei: Oh yes. We can increase the pressure – for example with our petition. Just imagine what it would mean if many Egyptians – and I mean really very many – made their statement with their signature and an authorised passport number. We want change, we want democracy!
You're putting videos on the Internet, you're on Twitter and Facebook. But you haven't even got an office in Cairo.
Mohamed ElBaradei: But volunteers are streaming to us from all levels of society, and they're asking: what can I do? There are already 15,000 volunteers who are going out into towns and villages all over the country to tell people about the new citizens' movement.
And all that without any organisational structure?
Mohamed ElBaradei: That really is a dilemma. We need structures, but we're not allowed to build them – what can one do? Become illegal? I ask you, imagine someone like me outside the law! Unthinkable! I've always been a man of the law. I can only rely on something different: that the Egyptians themselves will start to move, to such an extent that nobody can stop them. That could take six months, or six years. At least people are beginning to talk about politics! For decades that was virtually a taboo topic in Egypt. Keep your mouth closed and go to work: that was the rule. Like in East Germany. That's why I tweeted: "We will overcome our fear in the same way as the Germans brought down the Wall."
And how do you reach those who don't have access to the Internet?
Mohamed ElBaradei: Luckily there are private television stations. I appear in their programmes. Recently I was in one which was watched by 44 million people.
Your supporters already are having difficulties in other Arab countries. They've been arrested in Kuwait; your website has been blocked in Saudi Arabia. Is the Arab world against you?
Mohamed ElBaradei: That wasn't meant personally (he laughs). No, they just find the idea uncomfortable that democracy could take root in the Middle East.
The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, has just issued a severe warning to the opposition. Do you consider that to be a personal threat?
Mohamed ElBaradei: No, I don't want to believe that. But in fact there is a certain panic among those in power – although I've not come to Egypt with anything other than my ideas. What seems to make them nervous is my international credibility. So they are running a campaign of slander. But the more personal the campaign becomes, the more Egyptians think: well, if this man is being so got at, then perhaps he really has got something to offer.
Mubarak's challenger in the 2005 election, Ayman Nour, landed in prison. Doesn't that worry you?
Mohamed ElBaradei: No. My security lies in the fact that I am so well known. When I go somewhere in Egypt, there are always 50 people from the media there – Arab, international; that provides a certain protection.
Interview by Gero von Randow and Michael Thumann
© DIE ZEIT / Qantara.de 2010
Mohammed ElBaradei was born in Cairo in 1942. He is a career diplomat who was head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1997 to 2008. The Bush administration saw him as an opponent because of his opposition to the Iraq war. In 2005 he and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de