ElBaradei: A contentious consensus figure for opposition

Analysis: Former-IAEA chief attempts to calm fears that a new government would be hostile to the West.

Mohamed ElBaradei speaking bullhorn 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Mohamed ElBaradei speaking bullhorn 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Mohamed ElBaradei has emerged as a consensus figure for Egypt’s opposition, a leader around whom both progressive-democratic and Islamist opponents of the Mubarak regime can unite. But to the West, the lawyer, diplomat and Nobel laureate has until now remained a largely opaque figure, recognized primarily as the face of the UN watchdog monitoring the nuclear programs of Saddam Hussein and Iran.
Earlier this week, the Muslim Brotherhood announced it would allow him to represent the movement, if only on an interim capacity, thereby vastly expanding ElBaradei’s hitherto meager support base of broadly secular, more Western-oriented Egyptians.
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Still, questions remain as to what kind of leadership to expect from ElBaradei, who at 68 has spent much of the past few decades in New York and Vienna. What are his fundamental views on domestic policy and Cairo’s international relations, notably with Israel? Over the past week policy-makers, journalists and observers the world over have been scrambling to get to know the unassuming jurist who seemed to appear from nowhere to lead Egyptians’ march against the Mubarak autocracy.
On Wednesday, ElBaradei spoke with CBS News’ Katie Couric, in an apparent bid to calm Western nerves over his prospective leadership. On one point he was clear: “I will never get into a dialogue while Mubarak is in power.
“Because all that you do is give that regime legitimacy, which in my view, they have lost,” he said. “But more importantly – I don’t think he understands what democracy means. I don’t think he understands that he really needs to... let go.”
ElBaradei dismissed fears about the makeup of a new Egyptian leadership as a ploy by the current government to sow fear. “The hype that once Egypt becomes a democracy, it will become hostile to the US and hostile to Israel – I mean, these are the two hypes and are fictions,” he said.
ElBaradei’s comments to the foreign press over the past few years offer a glimpse into his views on domestic and foreign policy.
“For years, the West has bought Mr. Mubarak’s demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood lock, stock and barrel, the idea that the only alternative here are these demons called the Muslim Brotherhood who are the equivalent of al-Qaida,” he told The New York Times on January 26 of this year. “I am pretty sure that any freely and fairly elected government in Egypt will be a moderate one, but America is really pushing Egypt and pushing the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression.”
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
In July, he told Germany’s Der Spiegel newsweekly that the Brotherhood has 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 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.”
In the same interview, he lambasted the policies of both Israel and Egypt on Gaza. “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 Hamas, whose radical positions I do not share, but who came to power in a legitimate election,” he said. “We must do all that we can to relieve the suffering of the people there. Open the borders, end the blockade!” ElBaradei has consistently called for a nuclear-free Middle East, one in which both Iran and Israel would be prohibited from wielding weapons of mass destruction.
“We have to stop applying different standards in the Middle East. It is this duplicity that is constantly criticized in the Arab world. The goal should be to turn the Middle East into a nuclear-weapons-free zone,” he said in 2009.
A military strike on Iran, he said, “would be absolutely the worst thing that could happen. There is no military solution... If a country is bombed, you give them every reason – with the support of everybody in the country and outside the country – to go for nuclear weapons, and nobody can even blame them.”
ElBaradei has come under criticism in Washington and Jerusalem for his perceived kid-glove treatment of Iran’s nuclear program. In 2007, then-US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice criticized the IAEA for “muddying the message” to Iran and urged it to stay out of the business of diplomacy. As late as July 2010, ElBaradei told Der Spiegel, “In general, the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran is overestimated... I do not believe that the Iranians are actually producing nuclear weapons.”
Of the appeal of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he told the magazine, “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 cofounded 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.”
Dan Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa, described ElBaradei to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday as a “puppet.”
“If the Muslim Brotherhood has agreed that he’ll represent them, it means they know they can manipulate him,” Schueftan said.
Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, used similar language. Lacking a strong personal base, he said, ElBaradei as president would likely be “an agent, a puppet, of the Islamists. And he’s not very friendly to Israel, anyway.”
In his 2005 Nobel address, ElBaradei offered a rare look at his own national, religious and human identity.
“I am an Egyptian Muslim, educated in Cairo and New York, and now living in Vienna. My wife and I have spent half of our lives in the North, half in the South. And we have experienced first hand the unique nature of the human family and the common values we all share. Shakespeare speaks of every single member of that family in The Merchant of Venice when he asks, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’”