News roundup from Egypt: The wrong Mubarak quits. Soon the right one will go
- Robert Fisk: The wrong Mubarak quits. Soon the right one will go
Protesters in Tahrir Square are right to be sceptical despite the apparent shake-up in Egypt's ruling party
Sunday, 6 February 2011
The old man is going. The resignation last night of the leadership of the ruling Egyptian National Democratic Party – including Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal – will not appease those who want to claw the President down. But they will get their blood. The whole vast edifice of power which the NDP represented in Egypt is now a mere shell, a propaganda poster with nothing behind it.
The sight of Mubarak's delusory new Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq telling Egyptians yesterday that things were "returning to normal" was enough to prove to the protesters in Tahrir Square – 12 days into their mass demand for the exile of the man who has ruled the country for 30 years – that the regime was made of cardboard. When the head of the army's central command personally pleaded with the tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in the square to go home, they simply howled him down.
In his novel The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez outlines the behaviour of a dictator under threat and his psychology of total denial. In his glory days, the autocrat believes he is a national hero. Faced with rebellion, he blames "foreign hands" and "hidden agendas" for this inexplicable revolt against his benevolent but absolute rule. Those fomenting the insurrection are "used and manipulated by foreign powers who hate our country". Then – and here I use a precis of Marquez by the great Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswany – "the dictator tries to test the limits of the engine, by doing everything except what he should do. He becomes dangerous. After that, he agrees to do anything they want him to do. Then he goes away".
Hosni Mubarak of Egypt appears to be on the cusp of stage four – the final departure. For 30 years he was the "national hero" – participant in the 1973 war, former head of the Egyptian air force, natural successor to Gamal Abdel Nasser as well as Anwar Sadat – and then, faced with his people's increasing fury at his dictatorial rule, his police state and his torturers and the corruption of his regime, he blamed the dark shadow of the country's fictional enemies (al-Qa'ida, the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Jazeera, CNN, America). We may just have passed the dangerous phase.
Twenty-two lawyers were arrested by Mubarak's state security police on Thursday – for assisting yet more civil rights lawyers who were investigating the arrest and imprisonment of more than 600 Egyptian protesters. The vicious anti-riot cops who were mercifully driven off the streets of Cairo nine days ago and the drug-addled gangs paid by them are part of the wounded and dangerous dictator's remaining weapons. These thugs – who work directly under ministry of interior orders – are the same men now shooting at night into Tahrir Square, killing three men and wounding another 40 early on Friday morning. Mubarak's weepy interview with Christiane Amanpour last week – in which he claimed he didn't want to be president but had to carry on for another seven months to save Egypt from "chaos" – was the first hint that stage four was on the way.
Al-Aswany has taken to romanticising the revolution (if that is what it truly is). He has fallen into the habit of holding literary mornings before joining the insurrectionists, and last week he suggested that a revolution makes a man more honourable – just as falling in love makes a person more dignified. I suggested to him that a lot of people who fall in love spend an inordinate amount of time eliminating their rivals and that I couldn't think of a revolution that hadn't done the same. But his reply, that Egypt had been a liberal society since the days of Muhammad Ali Pasha and was the first Arab country (in the 19th century) to enjoy party politics, did carry conviction.
If Mubarak goes today or later this week, Egyptians will debate why it took so long to rid themselves of this tin-pot dictator. The problem was that under the autocrats – Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak and whomever Washington blesses next – the Egyptian people skipped two generations of maturity. For the first essential task of a dictator is to "infantilise" his people, to transform them into political six-year-olds, obedient to a patriarchal headmaster. They will be given fake newspapers, fake elections, fake ministers and lots of false promises. If they obey, they might even become one of the fake ministers; if they disobey, they will be beaten up in the local police station, or imprisoned in the Tora jail complex or, if persistently violent, hanged.
Only when the power of youth and technology forced this docile Egyptian population to grow up and stage its inevitable revolt did it become evident to all of these previously "infantilised" people that the government was itself composed of children, the eldest of them 83 years old. Yet, by a ghastly process of political osmosis, the dictator had for 30 years also "infantilised" his supposedly mature allies in the West. They bought the line that Mubarak alone remained the iron wall holding back the Islamic tide seeping across Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood – with genuine historical roots in Egypt and every right to enter parliament in a fair election – remains the bogeyman on the lips of every news presenter, although they have not the slightest idea what it is or was.
But now the infantilisation has gone further. Lord Blair of Isfahan popped up on CNN the other night, blustering badly when asked if he would compare Mubarak with Saddam Hussein. Absolutely not, he said. Saddam had impoverished a country that once had a higher standard of living than Belgium – while Mubarak had increased Egypt's GDP by 50 per cent in 10 years.
What Blair should have said was that Saddam killed tens of thousands of his own people while Mubarak has killed/hanged/tortured only a few thousand. But Blair's shirt is now almost as blood-spattered as Saddam's; so dictators, it seems, must now be judged only on their economic record. Obama went one further. Mubarak, he told us early yesterday, was "a proud man, but a great patriot".
This was extraordinary. To make such a claim, it was necessary to believe that the massive evidence of savagery by Egypt's state security police over 30 years, the torture and the vicious treatment of demonstrators over the past 13 days, was unknown to the dictator. Mubarak, in his elderly innocence, may have been aware of corruption and perhaps the odd "excess" – a word we are beginning to hear again in Cairo – but not of the systematic abuse of human rights, the falsity of every election.
This is the old Russian fairy tale. The tsar is a great father figure, a revered and perfect leader. It's just that he does not know what his underlings are doing. He doesn't realise how badly the serfs are treated. If only someone would tell him the truth, he would end injustice. The tsar's servants, of course, connived at this.
But Mubarak was not ignorant of the injustice of his regime. He survived by repression and threats and false elections. He always had. Like Sadat. Like Nasser who – according to the testimony of one of his victims who was a friend of mine – permitted his torturers to dangle prisoners over vats of boiling faeces and gently dunk them in it. Over 30 years, successive US ambassadors have informed Mubarak of the cruelties perpetrated in his name. Occasionally, Mubarak would express surprise and once promised to end police brutality, but nothing ever changed. The tsar fully approved of what his secret policemen were doing.
Thus, when David Cameron announced that "if" the authorities were behind the violence in Egypt, it would be "absolutely unacceptable" – a threat that naturally had them shaking in their shoes – the word "if" was a lie. Cameron, unless he doesn't bother to read the Foreign Office briefings on Mubarak, is well aware that the old man was a third-rate dictator who employed violence to stay in power.
The demonstrators in Cairo and Alexandria and Port Said, of course, are nonetheless entering a period of great fear. Their "Day of Departure" on Friday – predicated on the idea that if they really believed Mubarak would leave last week, he would somehow follow the will of the people – turned yesterday into the "Day of Disillusion". They are now constructing a committee of economists, intellectuals, "honest" politicians to negotiate with Vice-President Omar Suleiman – without apparently realising that Suleiman is the next safe-pair-of-hands general to be approved by the Americans, that Suleiman is a ruthless man who will not hesitate to use the same state security police as Mubarak relied upon to eliminate the state's enemies in Tahrir Square.
Betrayal always follows a successful revolution. And this may yet come to pass. The dark cynicism of the regime remains. Many pro-democracy demonstrators have noticed a strange phenomenon. In the months before the protests broke out on 25 January, a series of attacks on Coptic Christians and their churches spread across Egypt. The Pope called for the protection of Egypt's 10 per cent Christians. The West was appalled. Mubarak blamed it all on the familiar "foreign hand". But then after 25 January, not a hair of a Coptic head has been harmed. Why? Because the perpetrators had other violent missions to perform?
When Mubarak goes, terrible truths will be revealed. The world, as they say, waits. But none wait more attentively, more bravely, more fearfully than the young men and women in Tahrir Square. If they are truly on the edge of victory, they are safe. If they are not, there will come the midnight knock on many a door.
The key players
A former Egyptian air force commander who was thrust into power after Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1982, Mubarak has proved to be a ruthless and resilient President. By combining political repression at home with close relations with the US, and relatively cordial relations with Israel, he has been able to retain Egypt's place as a pivotal voice in the Arab world. His handling of the Egyptian economy has been less successful, however.
Like President Mubarak, Prime Minister Shafik's background is in the Egyptian air force, which he at one point commanded; he has also served as aviation minister. Both his military background and his reputation for efficiency as a government minister made him an obvious choice during the reshuffle forced by the protests.
As the head of the Mukhabarat, Egypt's secret service, Suleiman was one of the most powerful and feared men in Egypt. He also cultivated a close relationship with the US: Mukhabarat cells became one of the destinations for terror suspects who had been "renditioned" by the CIA. As Egypt's new Vice-President, however, he hardly represents a new face for the Mubarak regime. Reports of an assassination attempt against him last week have been denied by the Egyptian authorities.
Winner of the Nobel Peace prize, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency has the highest international profile of Mubarak's potential successors. However, he still lacks a strong domestic support base in Egypt, and among the Tahrir Square protesters. It remains to be seen whether he has time to build that kind of support before Mubarak leaves.
"We need to get a national consensus around the pre-conditions for the next step forward. The President must stay in office to steer those changes."
Frank Wisner, US special envoy for Egypt
"There are forces at work in any society, and particularly one that is facing these kinds of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda.... [That is] why I think it is important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by now Vice-President Omar Suleiman."
Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State
"We need a transition of power within a constitutional framework. At this stage, we have two possible directions: either constitutional reforms or a coup d'état by the army. I don't see another way out."
Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, secretary general of the liberal Wafd Party
"I don't believe that we solve the world's problems by flicking a switch and holding an election.... Egypt is a classic case in point."
David Cameron, speaking at security conference in Munich
"I think a very quick election at the start of a process of democratisation would be wrong.... If there is an election first, new structures of political dialogue and decision-making don't have a chance to develop."
Angela Merkel, German Chancellor
Egypt protests - Sunday 6 February
• Muslim Brotherhood holds talks with government
• US swings support behind vice president Omar Suleiman
• Read the latest summary
Useful information on the Muslim Brotherhood
I see we're having some to and fro about the Muslim Brotherhood, with the politically correct position being to downplay the threat they embody. I thought you would all be interested in this piece from Foreign Affairs by Carrie Roseksky Wickham, an Egypt-Middle East expert at Emory University.
She gives a calm explanation of what exactly the MB is these days and how it operates, and her conclusions seem to me realistic and neither too alarmist nor too at ease:
The Brotherhood knows from experience that the greater its role, the higher the risk of a violent crackdown -- as indicated by the harsh wave of repression that followed its strong showing in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Its immediate priority is to ensure that President Hosni Mubarak steps down and that the era of corruption and dictatorship associated with his rule comes to an end. To achieve that, the Brotherhood, along with other opposition groups, is backing El Baradei. The Brotherhood also knows that a smooth transition to a democratic system will require an interim government palatable to the military and the West, so it has indicated that it would not seek positions in the new government itself. The Brotherhood is too savvy, too pragmatic, and too cautious to squander its hard-earned reputation among Egyptians as a responsible political actor or invite the risk of a military coup by attempting to seize power on its own.
Still, it is unclear whether the group will continue to exercise pragmatic self-restraint down the road or whether its more progressive leaders will prevail. Such reformers may be most welcome among the other opposition groups when they draft a new constitution and establish the framework for new elections, but they do not necessarily speak for the group's senior leadership or the majority of its rank and file. It remains to be seen whether the Brotherhood as an organization -- not only individual members -- will accept a constitution that does not at least refer to sharia; respect the rights of all Egyptians to express their ideas and form parties; clarify its ambiguous positions on the rights of women and non-Muslims; develop concrete programs to address the nation's toughest social and economic problems; and apply the same pragmatism it has shown in the domestic arena to issues of foreign policy, including relations with Israel and the West.
It remains to be seen...She's an expert, and she doesn't know. Which means that I sure as hell don't know, and you sure as hell don't know either. So let's drop the certainty. Probably even the Muslim Brotherhood itself doesn't yet know what its posture will be.
I recommend reading this. Some of you took me as trafficking in MB hysteria this morning. I said I'm "far from sanguine," but that doesn't mean I am convinced they'll impose sharia in 10 minutes. I just think it's an open question. Still, as I wrote, they have to be included.
I'll try to stay off my high horse here, and you yours. Let it unfold. As much as we all want it to be Prague 1989, it could be Tehran 1979, or it could be something else entirely, and nobody knows.
Israel's government raises alarm at events in Egypt
Jerusalem Post editor warns Israel's 'concrete strategic assumptions liquefied almost overnight'
Rachel Shabi in Tel Aviv
guardian.co.uk, Friday 4 February 2011 19.22 GMT
As pro-democracy demonstrations continue in Egypt, Israel's reaction has been of rising panic, as typified by Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz. He today warned that Israel's "concrete strategic assumptions were liquefied almost overnight", representing a "colossal psychological blow" and a reminder that Israel is "territorially and demographically dwarfed by the seething entities arrayed around us".
Israel has been following events in Egypt and across the Middle East with mounting concern, as entrenched positions look set to shift, destabilising a status quo that has long been taken for granted.
"The Israeli government is freaking out," said Dr Shmuel Bachar, at the Israel Institute for Policy and Strategy. "For the past 30 years we have depended on Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. Now, suddenly, we have rediscovered the existence of something called an Egyptian public, the existence of which we've vigorously tried to ignore."
Israel has been troubled by sight of masses of Egyptian people on the streets calling for democratic rights, freedoms and the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. Last week senior officials reported that a dozen key Israeli embassies were urged by the foreign ministry to stress the importance of Egyptian stability to host countries. Several Israeli commentators have expressed anger at US criticism of Mubarak, arguing that is not in US or Israeli interests. In a poll published by mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot, 65% of Israelis think Mubarak's removal from office would be a bad thing for Israel.
Of primary concern are fears that the Muslim Brotherhood, perceived as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, could take control and reverse relations with Israel. The treaty signed with Egypt in 1979 brought about a frosty sort of peace in practice, but it had dramatic benefits. Significantly, Israel has for decades budgeted on the assumption that it will not have to fight a war on the Egyptian front, according to Giora Eiland, a retired general and former head of the army's planning branch.
"The defence budget was more than 30% of the gross domestic product before 1979 and went down to 7% after the peace treaty," he said. "One reason for Israel's economic prosperity is that it could decrease the defence budget for all those years."
Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, signalled potential budgetary changes last week when he said that, should Egypt renege on the peace treaty, Israeli would "protect it with security arrangements of the ground". Several analysts point out that, in such a scenario, Israel would face an Egyptian enemy that has been the beneficiary of advanced US weaponry.
But Eiland sees other strategic worries over developments in Egypt. "If the Muslim Brotherhood takes control, there could be an immediate reaction in Palestinian society, where Hamas, the Palestinian wing of the Brotherhood, could be encouraged to take control of the West Bank."
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has shut down recent demonstrations in solidarity with the pro-democracy protesters in Egypt.
As well as fears over the smuggling of weapons from Egypt into Gaza, Israel is worried about potential ruptures in Jordan, resulting in a scenario whereby Israel is, according to Eiland "surrounded only by enemies, which would be a strategic change".
Although many Israeli commentators are rehearsing these fears about Islamist politics, some have questioned these reactions. "There are no religious slogans in Tahrir square, but still we look upon the Muslim Brotherhood as though it is the greatest threat," says Zvi Bar'el, veteran middle eastern affairs analyst for Haaretz newspaper. "This is how we are educated by the government and media, to see Islam as a symbol of evil."
Bar'el adds that Israelis do not register the contradiction of claiming to support democracy, but only on condition that Islamic parties such as the Palestinian Hamas or Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are not elected. "It has no meaning if you attach these terms," he says, adding that Israel's position is: "We support democracy, as long as you keep the dictatorial regimes in place."
Dr Bachar at the IPS says that Israeli policy is based on the assumption that there are only two alternatives in the Middle East: "a dictator that can be worked with – or chaos." He cautions that Israel "needs to change the record, insert a new disc".
Cairo's biggest protest yet demands Mubarak's immediate departure
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 5 February 2011 10.13 GMT
Robert Fisk: Exhausted, scared and trapped, protesters put forward plan for future
On a day of drama and confusion in Cairo, opponents of the Mubarak regime propose a new kind of politics.
Saturday, 5 February 2011
A message to Obama
Egyptian-Americans call on Obama to stand firmly on the side of the Egyptian people
Tunisian cyber activists take on Egypt
Tunisian cyberactivists turn their attention to the pro-democracy movement in Egypt.
Last Modified: 05 Feb 2011 01:23 GMT
Mubarak's third force terror tactic
President Mubarak unleashed his 'personal' thugs in a failed attempt to silence protestors seeking an end to his regime.
David Africa Last Modified: 03 Feb 2011 17:35 GMT
Johann Hari: We all helped suppress the Egyptians. So how do we change?
Very few British people would beat up a poor person to get cheaper petrol. But our governments do it all the time. Why?
Friday, 4 February 2011
The old slogan from the 1960s has come true: the revolution has been televised. The world is watching the Bastille fall on 24/7 rolling news. An elderly thug is trying to buy and beat and tear-gas himself enough time to smuggle his family's estimated $25bn in loot out of the country, and to install a successor friendly to his interests. The Egyptian people – half of whom live on less than $2 a day – seem determined to prevent the pillage and not to wait until September to drive out a dictator dripping in blood and bad hair dye.
The great Czech dissident Vaclav Havel outlined the "as if" principle. He said people trapped under a dictatorship need to act "as if they are free". They need to act as if the dictator has no power over them. The Egyptians are trying – and however many of them Mubarak murders on his way out the door, the direction in which fear flows has been successfully reversed. The tyrant has become terrified of "his" people.
Of course, there is a danger that what follows will be worse. My family lived for a time under the torturing tyranny of the Shah of Iran, and cheered the revolution in 1979. Yet he was replaced by the even more vicious Ayatollahs. But this is not the only model, nor the most likely. Events in Egypt look more like the Indonesian revolution, where in 1998 a popular uprising toppled a US-backed tyrant after 32 years of oppression – and went on to build the largest and most plural democracy in the Muslim world.
But the discussion here in the West should focus on the factor we are responsible for and can influence – the role our governments have played in suppressing the Egyptian people. Your taxes have been used to arm, fund and fuel this dictatorship. You have unwittingly helped to keep these people down. The tear-gas canisters fired at pro-democracy protesters have "Made in America" stamped on them, with British machine guns and grenade launchers held in the background.
Very few British people would praise a murderer and sell him weapons. Very few British people would beat up a poor person to get cheaper petrol. But our governments do it all the time. Why? British foreign policy does not follow the everyday moral principles of the British people, because it is not formulated by us. This might sound like an odd thing to say about a country that prides itself on being a democracy, but it is true.
The former Labour MP Lorna Fitzsimons spoke at a conference for Israel's leaders last year and assured them they didn't have to worry about the British people's growing opposition to their policies because "public opinion does not influence foreign policy in Britain. Foreign policy is an elite issue". This is repellent but right. It is formulated in the interests of big business and their demand for access to resources, and influential sectional interest groups.
You can see this most clearly if you go through the three reasons our governments give, sometimes publicly, sometimes privately, for their behavior in the Middle East. Explanation One: Oil. Some 60 per cent of the world's remaining petrol is in the Middle East. We are all addicted to it, so our governments support strongmen and murderers who will keep the oil-taps gushing without interruption. Egypt doesn't have oil, but it has crucial oil pipelines and supply routes, and it is part of a chain of regional dictators we don't want broken in case they all fall taking the petrol pump with it. Addicts don't stand up to their dealers: they fawn before them.
There is an obvious medium-term solution: break our addiction. The technology exists – wind, wave and especially solar power – to fuel our societies without oil. It would free us from our support for dictators and horrific wars of plunder like Iraq. It's our society's route to rehab – but it is being blocked by the hugely influential oil companies, who would lose a fortune. Like everybody who needs to go to rehab, the first step is to come out of denial about why we are still hooked.
Explanation Two: Israel and the "peace process". Over the past week, we have persistently been told that Mubarak was a key plank in supporting "peace in the Middle East". The opposite is the truth. Mubarak has been at the forefront of waging war on the Palestinian population. There are 1.5 million people imprisoned on the Gaza Strip denied access to necessities like food and centrifuges for their blood transfusion service. They are being punished for voting "the wrong way" in a democratic election.
Israel blockades Gaza to one side, and Mubarak blockades it to the other. I've stood in Gaza and watched Egyptian soldiers refusing to let sick and dying people out for treatment they can't get in Gaza's collapsing hospitals. In return for this, Mubarak receives $1.5bn a year from the US. Far from contributing to peace, this is marinating the Gazan people in understandable hatred and dreams of vengeance. This is bad even for Israel herself – but we are so servile to the demands of the country's self-harming government, and to its loudest and angriest lobbyists here, that our governments obey.
Explanation Three: Strongmen suppress jihadism. Our governments claim that without dictators to suppress, torture and disappear Islamic fundamentalists, they will be unleashed and come after us. Indeed, they often outsourced torture to the Egyptian regime, sending suspects there to face things that would be illegal at home. Robert Baer, once a senior figure in black ops at the CIA, said: "If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear, you send them to Egypt."
Western governments claim all this makes us safer. The opposite is the truth. In his acclaimed history of al-Qa'ida, The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright explains: "America's tragedy on September 11th was born in the prisons of Egypt." Modern jihadism was invented by Sayeed Qutb as he was electrocuted and lashed in Egyptian jails and grew under successive tyrannies. Mohammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, was Egyptian, and named US backing for his country's tyrant as one of the main reasons for the massacre.
When we fund the violent suppression of people, they hate us, and want to fight back. None of these factors that drove our governments to back Mubarak's dictatorship in Egypt have changed. So we should strongly suspect they will now talk sweet words about democracy in public, and try to secure a more PR-friendly Mubarak in private.
It doesn't have to be like this. We could make our governments as moral as we, the British people, are in our everyday lives. We could stop them trampling on the weak, and fattening thugs. But to achieve it, we have to democratise our own societies and claim control of our foreign policy. We would have to monitor and campaign over it, and let our governments know there is a price for behaving viciously abroad. The Egyptian people have shown this week they will risk everything to stop being abused. What will we risk to stop our governments being abusers?
Like Johann Hari on The Independent on Facebook for updates
Robert Fisk: 'Mubarak will go tomorrow,' they cried as rocks and firebombs flew
In Cairo's Tahrir Square, our writer hears protesters' hopes of forcing rapid change
Friday, 4 February 2011
Khamenei hails 'Islamic' uprisings
Iranian supreme leader urges Egyptians to follow in the footsteps of Iran's 1979 revolution.
Last Modified: 04 Feb 2011 13:41 GMT
Robert Fisk: Blood and fear in Cairo's streets as Mubarak's men crack down on protests
The sky was filled with rocks. The fighting around me was so terrible we could smell the blood
Thursday, 3 February 2011
Media in the line of fire in Egypt
Domestic and foreign journalists have come under siege amid the turmoil in Egypt.
Tony Blair: Mubarak is 'immensely courageous and a force for good'
Mubarak concessions 'insufficient'
Egypt protesters continue to demand president's immediate ouster, as US calls for urgent transition and reforms plan.
Last Modified: 02 Feb 2011 15:31 GMT
Income inequality, Egypt vs US
Mohamed ElBaradei: The man who would be President
Exclusive intervew: Robert Fisk meets Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt's saviour-in-waiting
Tuesday, 1 February 2011
Man of the moment? Of course Mohamed ElBaradei is. But man of the people, I have my doubts. He doesn't claim to be, of course, and sitting in his garden easy chair near an impossibly blue but rather small swimming pool, he sometimes appears – even wearing his baseball hat – like a very friendly, shrewd and bespectacled mouse. He will not like that description, but this is a mouse, I suspect, with very sharp teeth.
It's almost a delight to dissect the bigger mice who work in the White House and the State Department. "Do you remember how on the second day, all we heard was that they were 'monitoring the situation'. On the second day, Secretary Clinton said: 'We assess the situation as stable'; it was funny yesterday, too, to hear Clinton say that 'we have been urging the Egyptian Mubarak for 30 years to move on this – and he moved backward – how on earth can you still ask him to introduce democratic reform? Then Clinton talks about 'the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people' and now they are talking about 'the smooth transition of power'... I think they know that Mubarak's days are numbered."
Without any prompting, ElBaradei – Nobel peace laureate, ex-UN nuclear chief inspector, etc, etc – bites our own dear leader. "Yesterday, I heard Mr Cameron saying that 'democracy is not an election, that it's 'block-building'. Well, everybody knows that. But how do you talk about building a judiciary, civil society – how do you talk about these 'building blocks' – under a dictatorship? You either have a civil society or you don't."
Sometimes, ElBaradei sounds too hopeful. He agrees that the best potential Egyptian leadership have all been exiled, deliberately of course. On a recent speaking engagement at Harvard, he found 15 Egyptians on the Harvard Board.
"I told them: If you come back, you can run Egypt." But it's not that simple. As ElBaradei admits: "It's an old story that ends: 'Mubarak is a friend of Israel and we think a change will bring a government hostile to Israel and it will bring on an Iranian-type velayeh-fakhi [guidance by a supreme religious leader]. I say this is like 'True Fiction'. You need to get rid of this 'True Fiction' about the Muslim Brotherhood and the automatic hostility towards Israel. It is a fact that a durable peace can only be between democracies and not between dictators and, if you want a durable peace, whether Egypt is a democracy or a dictatorship, the feeling of the people in the region is not going to change."
He says he is convinced that Mubarak will go. And so say all of us. He also says he believes the Egyptian army will not fight the Egyptian people, which is by no means certain. I suspect that, like me, ElBaradei isn't very keen on armies. "I think, ultimately, that the Egyptian army will be with the people. This is common sense when you see a couple of million people in the street who are representative of 85 million Egyptian people who hate Mubarak, who want to see his back. The army is part of the people. And at the end of the day, after anyone takes off his uniform, he is part of the people with the same problems, the same repression, the same inability to have a decent life. So eventually, I don't think they are going to shoot their people. And why should they shoot their people? To protect what?"
When Egypt lost the 1967 war, ElBaradei wrote that "a soldier fights because he defends something he wants to keep. But in the 1967 war, what was the Egyptian soldier fighting for? There was nothing to go back to. So they ran away". Nasser, so the great man believes, was the worst of Egyptian dictators – "he even nationalised the grocery shops" – but the path of dictatorship ran right through to today. Even a few months ago he could not imagine what would happen. "I had gone to a wake, I told my brother, and I looked at the eyes of the mourners and they were dead – they were dead souls. And now I look at the people today and they have recovered their self-confidence. They are free. It was like a pressure cooker."
He talks about hypocrisy, dictatorship, criminal malfeasance, the darkest deeds of the Egyptian security services, the loyalty of the Egyptian army to the people in a high, astringent but deadly voice. No he doesn't want to be the president, but when I ask him if he might consider a transitional presidency for himself – until fair elections, naturally – I receive a traditional reply. "If there's a consensus by all people to do whatever they think I can do for them... I will do that." Hmmm, I think to myself.
"All this will continue to be the same until you address the plight of the Palestinians, until you review your policy in the region. We have this strange relationship where you are calling this peace but you cannot even publish an Israeli book here, or vice-versa, for example. If you really want peace, yes, the peace can be made durable with democracy, but also you have your responsibility – which is to review a balanced relationship, particularly on the Palestinian issue, Iraq, Afghanistan, what have you, and then you will have an Arab world which will be friendly to the West."
ElBaradei is surprisingly mild when he speaks of Mubarak the man. He last saw him two years ago. "I would go to see him when I returned from a UN mission or a holiday. I always received a friendly reception. It was a very cordial relationship. It was one-to-one, just us, and there was no formality. I would tell him what I thought of this or that problem, what might be done. He doesn't really have advisers who have the guts to tell him the truth."
Much good did ElBaradei's advice do. He is outraged by the arson and looting. When I ask if state security policemen were behind the arson – which is used by Mubarak, Obama and Clinton to "tag" those who demand Mubarak's departure with violence – the mouse shows its teeth. "They [the police] were, we are now hearing about documents which show that some of these uniformed officers have taken off their uniforms and gone about looting. And everybody says that they have been ordered to do this by the regime or the ministry of interior or whatever. And if this is true, then this is the most sinister of criminal acts. We have to verify this. But for sure, many of these bands of thugs and looters are from part of the secret police."
And then suddenly, in that high voice, eyes glittering behind pebbling spectacles, the mouse becomes a tiger. "When a regime withdraws the police entirely from the streets of Cairo, when thugs are part of the secret police, trying to give the impression that without Mubarak the country will go into chaos, this is a criminal act. Somebody has to be accountable. And now, as you can hear in the streets, people are not saying Mubarak should go, they are now saying he should be put on trial. If he wants to save his skin, he better leave."
My God, those teeth are sharp.
Mohamed ElBaradei – challenger to Mubarak
* Mohamed ElBaradei was born in Cairo and launched a legal career, joining the International Atomic Energy Agency in the 1980s and became head of the United Nations body in 1997.
* He was outspoken about the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the US-led invasion in 2003, which angered the administration of George W Bush. The award of the Nobel Prize for Peace jointly with the IAEA in 2005 further rankled.
* A secret nuclear programme was uncovered in Iran while he was the head of the IAEA. Tehran has always claimed that the programme is peaceful.
* ElBaradei, 68, began overt opposition to President Hosni Mubarak on his return to Egypt in February 2010 and won widespread support among young people and the middle classes.
* Last June he called on supporters to campaign for a change in the constitution to allow a democratic succession.
* ElBaradei put pressure on the United States to support calls for Mubarak to step down at the weekend, saying "life support to the dictator" must end. He dismissed US calls for Mubarak to enact sweeping reform in response to the mass protests.
* The official media has tried to ridicule ElBaradei, saying that he knows nothing about Egypt and has no political experience.
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