Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—The road to the Federal Palace in Cairo’s central Heliopolis district is not far from the site of Muslim Brotherhood protests and sit-ins at Rabia Basri in Nasr City.
The view from outside the palace—as with many of the public squares and streets in Cario—reflects the current state of anxiety that the whole country is experiencing. Armored vehicles line the streets, and large concrete barriers surround the palace.
The purpose of the visit was to meet with Dr. Mohamed El-Baradei, Egypt’s vice president responsible for foreign affairs, who has been described as the spiritual father of the January 25 revolution in Egypt. Despite this, he did not participate in the first interim period. Likewise, he did not receive any responsibilities during the year that Mohamed Mursi spent in the presidency. Many had expected and hoped that Baradei would have run in the previous presidential election.
He is still a source of much controversy—many are with him, and many against him—as he has been since his return to Egypt from his position with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. This time, in a position of responsibility, Baradei has taken an increasingly controversial stand between Egypt’s political forces. The streets are full of angry Brotherhood members, and the general mood seems inclined to use violence whenever tensions escalate.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he says that he had no other options before him than to accept the job of vice-president, with the country on the verge of collapse, and millions of people on the streets demanding regime change.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: While there seems to be a stalemate in the dialogue between parties to the crisis in Egypt, you seem to be in favor of extending a hand to the other side. Will this work after the events of June 30?
Mohamed El-Baradei: In politics, you have to give and take. The protests which have been taking place are not peaceful protests, because there has been violence. This cannot be allowed to continue, even if the demands are legitimate, because no one should be allowed to intimidate people. We must however do all we can to reach a settlement, because we have to protect lives. We must not use violence unless we have no other choice, and even then, restraint must be used to minimize the numbers of casualties. I am working on reducing tension by reducing the number of protesters on the streets. If the protests become peaceful, we can then talk to the Brotherhood about participation in the political process, and we want that, because they are part of Egyptian society, and they should have a role to play in a democratic country. We also want to see the Brotherhood take part in drafting the new constitution.
We do not want any parties working on the basis of religion, because that is against the nature of politics which has to be based on give and take, and we know that when someone talks about religion, they talk about their own interpretation of religion, and that is not necessarily the correct interpretation of it. The state must move forward and not allow a repeat of the recent crisis, which is a man-made crisis, because Egypt has never had any problem with Islam and Islamic Sharia. Since 1980, the constitution said Sharia was the main source of legislation. Some people, however, have misinterpreted this and began to cause problems, almost dividing Egypt into Muslims and infidels. That is why we want to go back to a constitution which clarifies our principles and values, including the freedom of belief and expression, and to guarantee all rights for all Egyptians, and to separate political life from religious preaching.
The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) should be separated from the Muslim Brotherhood, because the FJP plays a political role while the Brotherhood is a religious organization, and the constitution will deal with such situations to ensure the events we are living through these days, are not repeated.
Q: But the general mood in the street is different?
I know that the general mood is in favor of crushing the Muslim Brotherhood.
Q: That is why there are questions among political parties and sections of society which want seriousness and more decisiveness about the solution you mentioned.
If you are in a leadership position, you should lead, not be led. It is easy to say “let’s crush the Muslims Brotherhood,” but is that a solution. They are part Egyptian society and have rights, and from a pragmatic point of view, crushing them will be a form of oppression which will drive them underground and make them use violence against the state, as seen in Algeria. We have to live together and we must not alienate any part of our society.
Q: Other political parties say that the Brotherhood Movement, or even the Islamist movement as a whole, has been dealt a massive blow, so why would you throw them a lifeline?
I am not throwing them a lifeline, I am giving them their rights as citizens. I do not deal with them as a political faction, but as members of Egyptian society. They have to be part of the social, economic and political life, as long as they adhere to the rules accepted by society. I still hope they participate in the new constitution so that we can all find a way to live together, because if we do not, then we will see a repeat of what is happening in Syria and Iraq. I understand the Egyptian people’s anger, and I know the Brotherhood want to appear as the victims, but we must use our brains and conscience to reach as resolution which will bring about an Egypt which is at peace with itself.
Q: Some people explain the events of June 30 as a result of bad administration in the previous year. Others say it is a result of a fear for the country’s identity, or what some call the “Brotherhoodization” of the state.
The country’s identity problem is a fantasy. Egypt is 7,000 years old and no one wakes up in the morning wondering what their identity is.
Q: What about the “Brotherhoodization” of the state?
This is not a question of identity, but an attempt by a group to impose their interpretation of religion on the rest. The rest, however, including the Al-Azhar [the highest Sunni religious authority in Egypt] are at odds with them. No one can impose their interpretation of religion on others. The Brotherhood use the policy of exclusion, where you’re either with them or against them, and that is against democracy, which brought them to power.
When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ruled Egypt for one year, we were set on the wrong course. The same happened in the year which followed presidential elections, which was a total failure from the social and economic points of view. People decided that changing the regime was a must, and same goes for changing the president and holding early elections. The numbers which took to the street forced the army to move to save the country from civil war.
I saw this coming since early June. Mursi failed to understand the message and his group did not understand it either. Even foreign envoys, such as Catherine Ashton (EU foreign policy chief) said that if this (June 30 events) had happened in a democratic state, the president would have resigned. They have instruments such as withdrawing confidence in the US, but we do not have these, we only have people who can go out to the streets, and had the army not intervened at the right time, the situation could have developed into civil war.
Q. This is what causes arguments, especially externally.
We were between a rock and a hard place in Egypt. Either the army–which said it will not allow the country to collapse–intervened after giving two ultimatums of one week and 48 hours, or we would have ended up with street battles. We cannot, however, describe this as a military coup when you have 20 million people behind you, calling for Mursi to resign. The idea of a military coup has gone in Europe and the US. Everyone agrees that the army intervened to save and correct the democratic process and the path of the revolution. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi still wished Mursi had succeeded, I did too, and we wished that he had listened to the people, and he had ample opportunity to do so, but he failed, and he did so because of his exclusion policies and inexperience in running state affairs.
Q. Talking about the transitional phase and the road map which is based on nine months. Do you under the current circumstances see that as possible to implement, or will it take longer?
I think we can resolve the issue if the Brotherhood accepted that there was no going back. The National Democratic Party (NDP) accepted that after the fall of Mubarak, and we want the Brotherhood to understand the situation just as the NDP did in accepting that there was desire for change. We also want both the NDP and the Brotherhood to participate in the new political process. If all this happens, then I can see the transitional phase being completed within the nine months, or maybe one year if I was to be truthful. The new constitution must be comprehensive and representative of all people and guarantee the rights of all people in Egypt, women and children, Copts and others. If we achieve this, it will be the biggest achievement in the history of modern Egypt, because since 1952, there had not been a real constitution which could be described as a democratic constitution in the real sense. After that, there will be parliamentary and presidential elections.
Q. A statement by a Brotherhood leading figure appeared in the New York Times saying they were waiting for a good will initiative.
There is no dialogue at official level, but there are many mediators, but before we start dialogue the Brotherhood need to denounce violence. We cannot start talking to them while they intimidate people and exploit the crisis.
We already have in Egypt the EU representative Bernardino Leon, US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Bin Atiyyah, who are all trying to end the violence, and after that, we can discuss how the Brotherhood can participate in the drafting of the constitution, and take part in the political process.
Q. There seems to be great sensitivity in the street about foreign mediation in internal affairs.
Of course it is an internal matter, but we are part of the world, and the world is concerned.
These people did not come to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs, but some of them have links to the Brotherhood and can influence them. We welcome any help from anyone to resolve the crisis, even though in the end, it will be us who resolves the problem after listening to the advice of outsiders.
Q. General Sisi criticized President Barack Obama and the American Administration, and at the same time, he called on them to use their influence on the Brotherhood. Do you expect that to happen, and do they have that kind of influence?
We must understand in the Arab world that everyone looks after their own interests. The United States had a relationship with the Brotherhood because we had a Brotherhood president for one year. In my view, this was seen by the Americans as an opportunity to forge relations with political Islam, represented by the Brotherhood in the region. The Americans have now accepted that change has taken place in Egypt and that the Brotherhood are not there. If the Americans still have links with the Brotherhood and can influence them to accept the current situation, then they are welcome.
Q. There is talk about the presence of doves who want political settlement, and hawks within the government, who want decisive action, and that those who want a continued political effort are a minority.
Differing views are found in every country. We all want an end to the protests but I think we still have time and other avenues to consider before we resort to force. This will give us the chance to prove we tried everything we could to save lives. However, I still do not see force as the way to resolve the issue, and that there must be a form of reconciliation.
Q. You are described by some as the Godfather of January 25 revolution, but you were subjected to criticisms which still continues. Your supporters expected you to run for president last time, but you did not for your personal reasons, and then decided to take on the responsibility this time, which could have a heavy political cost to you.
I did not run in the 2012 elections because there was no constitution and I did not know what the powers of my office were, and we all saw how it all ended, with the Mursi’s annulment of the Constitutional Court. This time I accepted the responsibility because 20 million who went out on June 30 asked me to play my role. I have taken a big risk, putting my reputation and credibility on the line.
Q. What if the Brotherhood refused to participate? Is there hope to reach any settlement with them?
I hope that, just like Mubarak’s regime did, that there was no way back, the Brotherhood also understand that there no way back. I think their leaders did, and that Mursi’s return is not on the agenda. We do say to them however, that we want to work with them on a new basis and a new reality, to build a new system like other democracies.
Q. One of the problems of the transitional period is the divisions within the political forces, and the Brotherhood was the main force which was organized. How do we guarantee that after one year of the elections, we do not end up with the same problems?
I think what happened last time will not be repeated for two reasons. The first reason is that the Brotherhood lost their credibility in the Egyptian street because of their incompetence. The second reason is that the civil forces have begun to understand their power in unity. The Brotherhood and the Salafists benefited from exceptional circumstances. People lost hope in Mubarak and Egyptian bureaucracy, while the Brotherhood were giving aid to poor people and raising slogans like “Islam is the solution.” It is a difference scenario now, when the constitution will guarantee that no one will be able to impose their ideas on others, and everyone will have their rights guaranteed.
Q. How do you see the relationship between the presidency, the civil government and the armed forces? I mean, who with regards who will have the authority and be the decision maker.
There is harmony in the relationship. For instance, we know each other and we have worked together before. We have President Adly Mansour who was a judge and has his independent ideas and understands the concept of justice. We also have a National Defense Council, and although I did not know General Sisi before, he understands his military role. Therefore, I can say there is harmony, and we may have differences on some issues, but we all sit down and discuss these like a family and resolve them.
Q. Do you see that the nine-month transitional period has the opportunity to revive the economy, even by a little margin?
This is an issue we are discussing now, and that is why we need the violence to end. We have aid coming from the Gulf and need calm to be restored to allow private investments to flow in. People must see that there is change, to give them hope. We are talking about projects to help poor Egyptian families and we must do more to save these people from poverty and illiteracy.
Q. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said it will only negotiate with an elected government.
I think when calm is restored we will negotiate with the IMF. The whole international community, including the IMF, wants to negotiate with us. We are not asking the IMF for USD 4 billion today, we just want them to show confidence in Egyptian economy. Investments will come and tourism will return, but the security and stability problem must be resolved. People are fed up that two and a half years after the ousting of Mubarak, they have seen nothing but deterioration in security.
Q. There is great concern in the Arab world for Egypt. What do you say to the Arabs about Egypt’s future? Is there hope for the return of stability?
Egypt is a great country and of course there is hope. The shorter the transitional period, the quicker we achieve coexistence. It is the same everywhere, look at Syria and Iraq, look at Somalia and Yemen. The Arab world today is in its worst security wise. We say to the Arabs however, there is hope, democracy is a new concept in the Middle East and we need time. I also call on Arabs to help us, and for the world community to help our economy. Egypt is open to the world and has no concerns about foreign interference because it is confident in itself.
Q. Are you thinking of running for presidency? We know you said you do not have such ambitions, but what if you were put under pressure and asked to run?
This idea is not on the agenda, and I hope I am not pressured, and I also hope I can resist the pressures because I can see a new generation which should be given a chance, with our help. I mean we can have a mixture of youth and experience, and if we set the correct course during the transitional phase, I will be one of the happiest people in the world and will be able to travel to London to see my grandchildren, whom I have not seen for six months.
Q. Are you planning any foreign trips?
These days everyone seem to come to us, but of course there is the UN summit in September, which will give me the opportunity to meet a number of leaders and explain the situation in Egypt to them, and the economic and other problems it faces, including the Nile water issue which we can resolve in partnership with African states. We should never have confrontation.
Q. Do you think the Arab spring has been positive or negative for the Arab world?
We are moving from decades of oppression to a stage of complete change to democracy. We may have been a little over optimistic with regards to the time it will take. I recall General Tantawi saying after the ouster of Mubarak that the issue will take six months to resolve. I told him I disagreed, but I still did not foresee the problems would be of the magnitude we see today. If we want to be a part of this world, then we need to apply world values, which are based on democracy.
Q. Going back to the issue of the constitution, and the mistake you mentioned in holding the elections before it. The opposing view says the constitution went to a referendum and was voted on.
In 50 years of oppressive rule, the Muslim Brotherhood was the only organized party in Egypt. All others were growing. The Brotherhood saw a chance and ran for government and then the referendum on the constitution, in which religion was exploited where they claimed that a yes vote was a vote for Islamic Sharia. Islam has been in the Egyptian constitution since 1923, and the laws of the country are derived from the Islamic Sharia according to the 1980 constitution, but we also live together as Muslims and Christians in complete harmony. We should not allow the issue in Egypt to turn into Muslims against infidels.
Q. People are asking when the protests and violence will end, before eid or after?
I hope it will be before eid. There are great efforts being made to end the protests, or at least contain them. Protests should be peaceful and not intimidate people and disrupt their lives. We will continue to talk to the Brotherhood until the protests are over. However, violent protests and those which want to take the country back to the pre-June 30 era, are unacceptable. I think this week will be a decisive week until the end of eid.
Q. With regards to Sinai, when will stability return there?
Sinai has many Takfiri and terrorist groups. It is possible that there may be as many as 10,000 or 12,000 from what I heard. I have also that there may be a relationship between the Brotherhood and the situation in Sinai. We do not seek a solution by force unless it is necessary, but we hope for conciliation. We also hope for a new political and security process to start there, although the resolution of the Sinai problem is not difficult from what I understand form the armed forces.
This interview was conducted in Arabic and can be read here