Even as Egypt’s embattled President Hosni Mubarak argues for a transition period to restore calm to the Middle East’s most populous nation before he steps down, anger at his 30-year rule continues unappeased and seems to be spreading elsewhere in the region. Could former nuke-hunter, Mohamed El Baradei be the beacon of sanity and hope? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
In a pre-recorded speech broadcast on Egyptian television in the evening of a day when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had joined demonstrations again in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities, President Hosni Mubarak declared he would not run for president again after three decades of authoritarian rule.
“The Hosni Mubarak who speaks to you today is proud of his achievements over the years in serving Egypt and its people. This is my country. This is where I lived, I fought and defended its land, sovereignty and interests, and I will die on its soil.”
Mubarak phrased Egypt’s choice as one of unruly, dangerous populism versus order, arguing, “The events of the past few days impose on us, both citizens and leadership, the choice between chaos and stability… I am now absolutely determined to finish my work for the nation in a way that ensures its safekeeping.” But his concessions have apparently not appeased the broad political protest movement that has been demonstrating against Mubarak’s three decades of authoritarian rule.
Of course, one could argue Egypt has really never had a chance at democratic government – or even a non-military one since the last ruler, Cleopatra, handed the country over to the Roman Republic – making these developments absolutely unprecedented for the Middle East’s most populous nation.
Watch: A million march in anti-Mubarak protest (EuroNews)
Meanwhile, in Washington, President Barack Obama’s administration appears to have finally stepped away from its tepid even-handedness, coming forward in support of an “orderly transition” that “must begin now”. Obama had earlier spoken with Mubarak before his broadcast and, according to aides, Obama insisted on a rapid transition.
Mubarak’s heretofore-solid support from the Egyptian military seems to have begun to waver as well. On Monday, the army announced it would not meet the protesters with force and said their demands had merit – leaving Mubarak with few options.
This development, in turn, gave Obama a chance to help push Mubarak into transition mode, although US officials have expressed disappointment that Mubarak had not moved further or more quickly. Along the way, American special envoy Frank Wisner, an old Middle East hand, was in Egypt and Wisner’s message seems to have been an element in pushing Mubarak into his decision for retirement in eight months’ time. (After 30 years in power and at the age of 82, Mubarak’s retirement certainly cannot be called “early”.)
These events have together sent emotional and political shock waves through the Middle East, helping bump up Egyptian prestige in a region where it used to be the preeminent cultural and political force. In an effort to preempt just such impact, Jordan’s King Abdullah II abruptly fired his cabinet after protests there and the Palestinian Authority has now said it would hold its promised municipal elections “as soon as possible”. In Yemen and Syria, countries with their own long-established authoritarian governments, dissidents have now issued calls for protests as well, so stay tuned there as well. Of course, there’s also Algeria…
Photo: A protester reacts in Tahrir Square to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s televised speech in Cairo February 1, 2011. Mubarak, responding to huge popular protests demanding the end of his 30-year rule, said on Tuesday he would not seek re-election in a ballot scheduled for September but would stay in office until then to respond to demands for reform. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez.
Back in Egypt, Mohammed el-Beltagui, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful opposition group, told reporters, “There is nothing the president can do except step down and let go of power”. Other leading opponents of Mubarak like former UN official Mohamed El Baradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work on nuclear disarmament, and longtime dissident Ayman Nour both echoed el-Beltagui’s comments.
With Mubarak’s announcement, however, implementing the proffered changes falls to the Egyptian parliament, but that body is overwhelmingly in the hands of Mubarak’s own captive, National Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Egypt’s political opposition has its own serious problems as it tries to bring together an inchoate, spontaneous uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood and such potential leaders as El Baradei and Nour. For many Egyptians, the issue has now become more than just Mubarak – rather it has become the whole system of cronies and the security apparatus that has helped keep him in office for so long.
One man who might well become – at the very least – Egypt’s interim leader is Nobel laureate Mohamed El Baradei. Readers can be absolutely certain foreign ministries around the region, in Europe, the US and throughout Africa are carefully sizing up the former UN official and parsing his views. While El Baradei had repeatedly crossed swords with George W Bush over Iraq and Iran’s presumed nuclear programmes, when Barack Obama won his own Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, El Baradei was extremely complimentary about Obama.
But in speaking some years earlier about the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, El Baradei had called it “a glaring example of how, in many cases, the use of force exacerbates the problem rather than solving it”. And speaking of an atomic inspections regimen, El Baradei has said, “We learnt from Iraq that an inspection takes time, that we should be patient, that an inspection can, in fact, work.”
Watch: Egypt’s opposition reject Mubarak’s offer to talk. (EuroNews)
But, more recently, El Baradei has demonstrated a distancing from the US saying, “The American government cannot ask the Egyptian people to believe that a dictator who has been in power for 30 years will be the one to implement democracy,” adding that American refusals to cut Mubarak loose were “a farce”.
The White House has been sending out public signals of its interest in reaching out to El Baradei. As Robert Gibbs, Obama’s press secretary said the other day, “I think that outreach is ongoing.” This is more urgent and important as both the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s secular opposition have started to coalesce around El Baradei as the “go to” man who is to negotiate on their behalf.
While Wikileaks disclosures show El Baradei was supportive of Obama’s initiatives on nuclear non-proliferation, the key issues now are what El Baradei’s views are on the triangular relationship between Egypt, Israel and the US, as well as on Egypt’s enforcement of their own blockade along the Gaza border. About this, El Baradei has said the blockade is “a brand of shame on the forehead of every Arab, every Egyptian and every human being” and has called for an end to the blockade. Moreover, over the years, El Baradei had clashes with Israeli representatives at the International Atomic Energy Agency, especially after Israel’s air strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor. El Baradei has also called for Israel (as well as India and Pakistan, to be fair) to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
El Baradei was born in Cairo in 1942 and his father had been president of the Egyptian Bar Association. His father was a supporter of democratic rights, an independent legal system and a free press. El Baradei has a BA in law from Cairo University and a doctorate in international law from New York University. He joined the Egyptian diplomatic corps in 1964 and served at the UN in New York and as part of Egypt’s mission to UN offices in Geneva. Later he became special assistant to the foreign minister and then left the foreign ministry to become responsible for the International Law Programme at the UN Institute for Training and Research. During that period he was also an adjunct professor in international law at NYU.
El Baradei was director general of the IAEA from 1997 to 2009 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, together with the IAEA, for their efforts “to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way”. Before becoming its head, he was a senior staffer at the IAEA, from 1984.
El Baradei is the man to watch. DM
Main photo: Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak addresses the nation on Egyptian State TV in this still image taken from video, February 1, 2011. Mubarak said on Tuesday he would not run for the presidency again and would work in the last months of his term to allow the transfer of power. REUTERS/Egyptian State TV.
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