Mohammed ElBaradei, Egypt's wake-up caller

"I can be a leader if I have the people behind me. I can't bring about change single-handed." Mohammed ElBaradei

Mohammed ElBaradei, the former IAEA head, during his interview. "I am not a saviour. I can be a leader if I have people behind me. I can't bring about change single-handedly."
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It's the big question, so we get it out of the way. Does Mohammed ElBaradei want to be the president of Egypt? The answer - "This is not necessarily, frankly, my goal" - merely invites another attempt: is there anyone who would not want to be president?

ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who returned to Egypt in February as something of a hero, says: "It's myself. I'm serious. I have got as much recognition as I've ever dreamt of." To prove the point, he leads the way to a room in his villa on the outskirts of Cairo, on the road to Alexandria. "I don't want to talk about myself," he says, with a shy smile, "but I'm the most decorated living Egyptian."

The room is full of his awards. They include the Nobel Peace Prize he won in 2005, the Greatest Nile Collar, Egypt's highest civilian award, bestowed upon him by President Mubarak in 2006, and, endearingly, the certificate recording his finishing first in his primary school in 1950, when he was eight. Collectively, in a country looking for change and leadership, they make the case persuasively that he is perhaps also the living Egyptian most qualified for the job.

In the four months since his return, ElBaradei has taken Egypt by storm, voicing criticism about "the authoritarian regime" and "the divided opposition". He has even criticised the Egyptian people for yearning for change but not being prepared to act to achieve it, content to sit back and wait for a saviour. He is not, he says, that saviour, but he is willing to help the people to achieve democracy.

Since February 19, much of the initial euphoria that greeted his return has evaporated, but he remains a prominent if enigmatic figure in Egyptian politics - his way of thinking and doing things seems to baffle both detractors and supporters. I first met ElBaradei in 2002 in Baghdad where, as the IAEA director general, he was heading inspection teams searching for weapons of mass destruction. At press conferences, he repeatedly stressed that, in his view, Iraq had no such weapons.

Then, he had seemed like the archetypal Egyptian father figure, an impression that came back to me as I followed his recent tours in and around Cairo. ElBaradei, who turned 68 this month, is a busy man. After a series of inconclusive e-mails I finally approached him for an interview in April. He smiled, put his arm on my shoulder, and said: "I would like to give you an interview, I just need to clone myself into five to be able to do all the things I want to do."

I finally got the interview this week. His wife, Aida el-Kashef, who greeted me at their villa, said I could have only half an hour, but in the end we spent almost an hour and a half in a room decorated with purple orchids overlooking the garden and the pool. ElBaradei welcomed me warmly and sat cross-legged in a big orange chair. Serious but frequently smiling, he moved his hands as he spoke, speaking in English throughout.

So what, I asked, was going on in Egypt? The ongoing nationwide fight between lawyers and judges, triggered by a personal dispute; the anger in the Coptic church over a court ruling allowing the divorced to remarry; mounting concern over the alleged killing in Alexandria of Khaled Said, 28, by undercover police ? his smile disappeared. "What we see are just symptoms of a total chaos and total confusion and lack of vision and clarity as to where we are heading," he said.

"It's very depressing ? The authority of the state is becoming less respected and the legitimacy of the regime is becoming questionable. They resort to stuff like torture which is Middle Ages practice, like [the] Inquisition ? this can't continue." He spoke about his intention to travel yesterday to Alexandria to share in the moment of silence for Said, which would be the first time he had taken to the streets with his fellow Egyptians. Many have been urging him to join them, and some have been critical because, until yesterday, he hadn't.

"I decided to go because this is the most egregious humanitarian violation and lack of sanctity of human life," he said. "This is not a political issue. I'm going there for a moment of silence to express my total indignation at this kind of torture and other inhuman practices that we see here in Egypt, and to condemn this and make it clear that this should be the last time we see such practice." He said he hoped Egyptians would show up in substantial numbers in Alexandria to condemn "not being treated like human beings" by a regime which was "betting on its security".

"Alexandria could be a test of whether Egyptians are ready to wake up and smell the coffee and ready to move," he said. While most Egyptians agreed on the need to change, he says, they've done little to achieve it. His National Association for Change, formed on his return to Egypt, had published a petition calling for a constitutional amendment allowing independents such as himself to run for president, to reinstate judicial supervision of elections, and to give the five million Egyptians living abroad the right to vote.

While ElBaradei had hoped for a million signatures, only 70,000 signed. It bodes ill for his hopes that tens of thousands will take to the street in protests and that the political opposition will take a unified stance in boycotting the legislative elections this autumn and next year's presidential vote. "That process," he says, "is going slow because of the tremendous culture of fear." Such protests as there are, on which the police crack down, still attract only a few hundred, at best, and only the Democratic Front Party officially agreed to boycott the elections.

"My view is that anyone who will participate in this charade will be giving legitimacy or pseudo-legitimacy to a regime desperate to get legitimacy," says ElBaradei. "This is not a democracy, let's call things by their real name; this is a single-party system, an authoritarian regime, and you don't play the game." From the outset, ElBaradei said he wouldn't join any of the existing parties and would not seek approval from the parties committee, headed by Safwat el-Sherif, a long-time stalwart of the administration and the secretary general of the ruling National Democratic Party, led by the president, Hosni Mubarak.

President Mubarak, 82, has been in power since 1981 and, despite his failing health, hasn't shown any sign of wanting to relinquish it. In 2007, he said that he would rule Egypt until his "last breath". To someone of ElBaradei's background as an international lawyer who has lived abroad for the past 30 years, Egypt's culture of a ruling elite, that has held sway since the 1952 revolution and which has seen four presidents from the army, is anathema.

Egyptian society is prone to "a lot of myth and very little contact with reality", he says. "I started from a pragmatic, realistic and rational-thinking approach, and in Egypt it's mostly emotions, you know, raw emotions, and emotional reactions to issues that are not emotional." This is compounded by "a high level of apathy and despair that anything is going to change". He complains that Egyptians are calling for change without acting, deflecting responsibility onto others and "heaping criticisms without presenting alternatives", but he is not, he says, "the one who is going to deliver their salvation ... I'm doing as much as I can to help for change, but I made it also very clear that people need to mature and understand that I'm not the Messiah, this is illusion. I can be a leader if I have the people behind me. I can't bring about change single-handed."

He says he will continue to speak out on these issues "because it's something I do for myself. I'm doing it because I think this is the right thing to do. People who agree with my way of doing things are welcome to join me, people who have different views I respect". He has certainly displeased the administration, whose state-owned media has been vilifying him. He shrugs at this: "It backfired," he says.

In fact, his way of doing things has also upset leaders from other political parties, as well as senior members within his own NAC who have gone public with their differences. He says, however, that the so-called divisions within NAC are "a fiction" because of a fundamental misunderstanding about the organisation's purpose. It is, he says, a framework for all Egyptians who sign the petition, not a party for the 30 or so people who happened to be at his place when it was born. It wasn't his idea, he says, but they supported his seven demands.

Besides, "people having different views on tactics doesn't mean a division", he says. He does not try to hide his admiration for the "young volunteers who I see are making a difference on the ground, and they understand me more, and they don't have hidden agendas and [are] not very keen on having their pictures in the newspapers. They know that what is at stake is their future." One of the things he has done that angered people both in and outside the NAC was going to visit Muslim Brotherhood legislators at their headquarters earlier this month, but he defends his decision. "The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest organised opposition group in Egypt and my attitude is always that you'll never go anywhere without getting support of a coalition and society.

"They have to be part of the political process; I don't necessarily agree with their doctrine, but it doesn't mean they don't have the right to participate in the political process in a peaceful manner." This view is, of course, one of the major sticking points with the regime, which banned the group in 1954. On its website, the NDP characterised his talks with the group as "ElBaradei's alliance with the devil".

It was, he says, all about getting signatures on the petition. "I went to the Church before I went to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Copts are still supporters of what I do, both here and abroad. I also met with the Left." What if he does not get enough signatures? What if he does, and the regime refuses to succumb to the pressure? "Fine," he says, "maybe it won't. Do you have an alternative?" He says he does not see a peaceful alternative to boycotting elections and drafting petitions. So is there a Plan B?

"Obviously Plan B would be formulated depending on the outcome of Plan A. I still believe that, if we do these two things, you put much pressure on the regime and then of course we will have every justification to go to the street." He will be watching closely to see what happens over the next three to six months, he says. At the end of June he will leave the country again, until September, to take care of prior commitments. Even this has angered some of his supporters but, as he says with a grin, "people don't understand that I have to earn a living".

What has been achieved in the past four months, he says, is "not bad. After more than 50 years of repression, the culture of fear is melting, people have started talking politics." The challenge for the people, and for people like him, is to maintain this. The challenge for the regime is to recognise that change is inevitable because the situation in Egypt has become "unsustainable". If it does not, he fears the worst: "I hope the regime will understand that if they continue to kill the prospect of peaceful change, the prospects will be dire."