Viewpoints No.

32

Mohamed ElBaradei From Vienna to Cairo: A Transition
Michael Adler, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center

July 2013

ElBaradei, the former international bureaucrat, is now in government in his homeland. It remains to be seen how he fares in this new role. The military, after all, is looking over his shoulder after putting him in power. ElBaradei’s delicate task will be to reassure the military while preserving his commitment to a real democracy. If the past is any guide, the mild-mannered Nobel Peace laureate may turn out to be surprising due to his tenacity.

Middle East Program

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Egypt’s new vice president, Mohamed ElBaradei, is a tenacious and controversial man. His rise to become his country’s vice president is an impressive career change after having headed the Vienna-based UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1997 until stepping down in 2009. While a journalist covering the IAEA, I watched ElBaradei grow in office as he outspokenly navigated the Iranian nuclear crisis that pitted the United States against the Islamic Republic. It will be interesting to see if ElBaradei’s career in Vienna is a guide to how he does in Cairo. Vienna was an early crucible for the Iranian crisis. From 2003 until Iran was referred to the United Nations Security Council in 2006 for its nuclear work, the IAEA was the main forum for this issue. The agency was not only the focus of the technical questions about the dimensions of Iran’s atomic activities. It was also the political battleground for the international effort to confront Iran over fears it was seeking the bomb. Dealing with the high stakes negotiations and handling the increasingly tense media coverage forced an intense learning curve upon those involved in sometimes sleepy Vienna. ElBaradei became slicker as a speaker and political operative and more conscious of the bully pulpit he had. The tall, professorial-looking Egyptian overcame a natural shyness to stride the world stage as he engaged in what he called “speaking truth to power.” What does this tell us about how the former international bureaucrat will act as a top Egyptian official? While the skills needed to run a large non-governmental bureaucracy are not necessarily those called on in government, ElBaradei’s performance as IAEA Director General could give a good indication about how he will proceed in his new job. Count on ElBaradei to base his approach on a fairly idealistic platform but to be wily enough to hang on as a durable opponent in political infighting. At the IAEA, he exasperated Western governments, especially the United States, with his emphasis on dialogue rather than confrontation with Iran. He showed a certain amount of nerve in the eyes of Washington, often telling the Americans what they were doing wrong and should do instead in negotiations. His speechwriter and close advisor, Laban Coblentz, said that ElBaradei took what could have been a shortcoming, namely his not being a government official, and turned it into an advantage. “Mohamed viewed this as an advantage because he believed that he was more independent, and, therefore, less susceptible to pressure, if he was not associated with a national government,” Coblentz told me in a recent exchange of e-mails. He said ElBaradei has made a similar evolution in Egypt, using his background as a lawyer and his “having lived half his life in the West” to enable him “to take the long view on what it takes to build a democracy. As an international diplomat and Nobel Peace laureate, he has had first-hand interactions with heads of state and ministers of scores of countries. This combination of experience gives him a unique profile among current Egyptian leaders.” ElBaradei has surprised many with his stubbornness. While IAEA chief, he stuck to his guns when he clashed with the U.S. administration of then President George W. Bush. First, he criticized the rush to war in Iraq and said his atomic inspectors should be given time to finish their job of finding out if Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapons program. Then, he fought against a rush to judging that Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program. He took the 1

initiative, claiming that negotiations with the Islamic Republic were wrongheaded. In closed door meetings and in public forums, ElBaradei hammered the line that Iran had to be dealt with realistically for its nuclear work rather than merely told to cut back its atomic program. He said it was necessary to understand and address the security concerns motivating the Islamic Republic. It was too late, ElBaradei said, to take away the nuclear knowledge Iranian scientists had already amassed. This knowledge was secure in the scientists’ brains and not in tangibles on the ground (i.e., installations open to air attack). Such assertions put ElBaradei on a collision course with the United States. U.S. officials vociferously in private, and sometimes with gritted teeth in public, blasted ElBaradei for interfering with their hardline policy on Iran, giving Iran room to maneuver instead of helping to close the vise. But ElBaradei, especially after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his work at the IAEA, felt he had a mandate as head of a key international agency to defy even governments on issues that could affect world peace. To some he became insufferable; to others a voice that must be heard. Coblentz recalled that “unlike many leaders, Mohamed never thought of himself as getting ahead due to his personal charisma. He never really liked speaking to crowds. In Mohamed’s mind, his best qualities as a leader were competence and integrity. So when it came to speaking truth to power, whether that power was the United States or Iran, it came naturally. He didn’t mind a temporary loss of popularity.” When ElBaradei stepped down as chief of the atomic watchdog in 2009, many thought he was set to ride off into the sunset in retirement, or at least stay in Vienna. Not at all. He returned to his homeland in January 2011 to join anti-government protests. The former international bureaucrat took on a new role as a leading critic of then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and he has shown the same mixture of stubbornness, idealism, and political realism that he did in Vienna. The conditions, of course, were different. Political activism in Cairo was a long way from the genteel hallways and often plush meeting rooms of international diplomacy. ElBaradei now stood, as the New York Times reported, “toe-to-toe with a line of hundreds of riot police several blocks long” as protestors called for an end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule. It was an amazing transformation from diplomat to street fighter for a revolution in his homeland. Still, ElBaradei has been active in the corridors of power, becoming a favorite of the Egyptian military, which has alternated between pulling strings behind the scenes and outright taking power. This maneuvering has made him, once again, controversial. The Muslim Brotherhood, which took over the government in 2012 after presidential elections, has criticized ElBaradei both for being too secular and for being an outsider, an Egyptian who had not lived in his country for decades as he pursued an international career. Even fellow opposition figures criticized ElBaradei for continuing to travel too much outside the country. Some said he was not spending enough time with demonstrators in Tahrir Square, but there were reports that Mubarak’s police had warned him to stay at home. ElBaradei was water-cannoned at one point during protests in January 2011. Still, there were chants at demonstrations of “1, 2, Elbaradei where are you?” the New York Times reported. ElBaradei has taken idealistic positions, as he did in Vienna. Coblentz said ElBaradei became strongly influenced by the youth of Egypt, envisioning himself as their champion. He said that 2

in late 2009 and early 2010, ElBaradei was “bombarded with requests from Egyptian youth to take on a leadership role. He began to see the volume of support for change via Facebook and other social media. He could not turn away. He began believing that revolution in the near term was feasible.” In the same way that ElBaradei had transformed himself from an uneasy speaker into a polished orator at the IAEA, he went to school on social media, learning how to use Facebook and Twitter and use “virtual space” to carry out the assembling of large groups that Mubarak was banning on the streets, Coblentz said. After the fall of Mubarak, ElBaradei backed off from running for president, saying he would place his name on the ballot only if the constitution were amended to allow for free and fair elections. ElBaradei dropped out of the presidential race in early 2012, saying he would spend his time better preparing the youth of Egypt to become a political force. He commented in January 2012, “My conscience does not permit me to run for the presidency or any other official position unless it is within a democratic framework.” As for parliamentary elections, ElBaradei strongly lobbied the military junta to appoint a representative civilian government and urged them to delay elections until all parties had time to organize. Here again some criticized ElBaradei for staying away from the fray and for making the political calculation that he could not beat the Islamic parties, rather than being motivated by idealism. Once the main Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, won and took power in June 2012, ElBaradei blasted President Mohammed Morsi for failing to run an effective administration. He said the streets were unsafe and that Morsi was heading a “failed government.” The military takeover, which in July 2013 toppled Morsi, set the stage for a new chapter in the life of ElBaradei. He had emerged as a leading anti-Morsi activist, much as he had been an outspoken leader against Mubarak. The main alliance of liberal and left-wing parties as well as youth groups that led anti-Morsi protests named him to negotiate with the armed forces. Reuters news agency quoted a source close to the military high command saying in early July that ElBaradei was the military’s first choice to head a new government. “He’s an international figure, popular with young people, and believes in a democracy that would include all political forces. He is also popular with some Islamist groups,” the source said. But the hardline Islamist group, the Salafist Al-Nour Party, strongly opposed ElBaradei as prime minister. The Salafists said ElBaradei’s taking office could increase polarization between Morsi supporters and secular protestors. The military slightly changed track and on July 14 swore ElBaradei in not as prime minister but as interim vice president, with a special brief to oversee Egypt’s foreign relations. The transition was complete. ElBaradei, the former international bureaucrat, was now in government in his homeland. It remains to be seen how he fares in this new role. The military, after all, is looking over his shoulder after putting him in power. ElBaradei’s delicate task will be to reassure the military while preserving his commitment to a real democracy. If the past is any guide, the mild-mannered Nobel Peace laureate may turn out to be surprising due to his tenacity.

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The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Wilson Center.

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Edited by Kendra Heideman and Mona Youssef Designed by Kendra Heideman Middle East Program Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars [Typ 1

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