Showdown in Egypt: Mohamed Elbaradei, 67, Takes to Street; Tells Obama, Mubarak Must Go No
January 30, 2011
Egyptian activist Mohamed Elbaradei was already widely-respected for his moral integrity. But when the 67-year old Nobel Peace laureate joined protesters on Sunday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to call for President Hosni Mubarak to step down immediately, the U.S.-trained lawyer displayed personal courage that at once earned him the credibility of “the street” and placed him at the center of a dangerous showdown with the man who has ruled Egypt for 30 years.
“You have taken back your rights and what we have begun cannot go back,” Elbaradei said. “We have one main demand: the end of the regime and the beginning of a new stage, a new Egypt. I bow to the people of Egypt in respect. I ask of you patience. Change is coming in the next few days.”
Elbaradei’s fate, and possibly the fate of the Middle East, is now inextricably tied to the direction that change takes: toward democracy and freedom of expression or toward an even more brutal and repressive dictatorship.
Speaking to CNN, he urged President Barack Obama “not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, ‘It’s time for you to go.’ ” He said he feared that unless Mubarak departs, “things will get bloody.”
ElBaradei’s stature in Egypt and on the world stage is unique. He is, as Time magazine commented last year, “an outsider to regime politics.” Moeover, he gained international recognition when served in Vienna as chief of the international nuclear watchdog for 12 years and challenged the Bush Administration’s claims that Iraq had nuclear weapons ahead of the U.S.‘s 2003 invasion. Later investigations proved him right. In 2005, ElBaradei was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to curb nuclear proliferation.
Born June 17, 1942, Mohamed ElBaradei was raised in Cairo where his attorney father headed the Egyptian Bar Association and often found himself at odds with the dictatorial regime of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the most repressive eras in Egyptian history, as he fought for democracy and human rights.
“That to a lot of extent shaped my view as to what I wanted to do in the future,” ElBaradei told the Washington-based Academy of Achievement last year. “I wanted to have a world where people are free to express their views, to have freedom of worship, to have freedom from want, and I saw poverty in Egypt when I grew up. To me, freedom, in the larger sense—to be able to speak, to worship, free from want, free from fear—I think it was a key as to what I thought I would like to do when I grow up.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, the young ElBaradei earned a law degree at the University of Cairo in 1962. He joined Egypt’s diplomatic service in 1964, and was assigned to his country’s United Nations missions in New York and Geneva. He was placed in charge of political and legal matters and gained his first experience in arms control issues. While serving with Egypt’s UN mission, he lived in Greenwich Village and studied at New York University School of Law, receiving a doctorate in International Law in 1974. He credits his years in New York City with broadening his worldview, teaching him to see the world in terms more global than nationalistic.
“My focus when I left Egypt in the ‘60s was Egypt-centered, but then I went to New York (and) recognized both through my academic studies, through my mentors at university, through living in this melting pot that the world is just bigger than one country, and you are really better off if you have a global picture,” he said. “If you want to achieve change, you shouldn’t focus on one particular people, one particular country, one particular language, but try to look at the global picture and try to integrate humanity, and I think that—that really now is my passion, and I think by doing this, I am serving every single person in the world by trying to get all of us together.”
While he had wanted to be more directly involved in Egyptian society, he saw little room for a lawyer in private practice within the socialist system of the time to work and express himself.
“Eventually, I thought I should learn, through diplomacy, through living abroad, and then come back to Egypt and be able to effect change,” he said.
After completing his doctorate, he was appointed Special Assistant to the Foreign Minister of Egypt, a position he held until 1978. President Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, broke the close ties to the Soviet Union that Nasser had cultivated. Instead, Sadat sought closer ties with the West and peace with Israel. ElBaradei served on the Egyptian negotiating team at the historic Camp David peace talks that led to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
In 1980, he went to work directly for the United Nations and as an adjunct professor of international law at New York University. He was first assigned to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1984 and, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, was sent to Iraq in 1991 to uproot the country’s nuclear weapons program. His team blew up laboratories and pulverized equipment.
In 1997, ElBaradei was chosen to lead the IAEA and soon found himself embroiled in a paramount international conflict. Saddam Hussein expelled the U.N. weapons inspectors from his country. And following terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the United States insisted that Iraq comply with the UN weapons inspection regime. When IAEA inspectors returned to Iraq in 2002, they found no trace of the previous nuclear program.
In a moment of extraordinary courage and integrity, ElBaradei soon found himself squaring off with President George W. Bush. In a State of the Union address, Bush said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” To support his claim, the U.S. presented the IAEA with a document, obtained in Italy. IAEA investigators identified the document as a forgery and ElBaradei dismissed the evidence before the UN Security Council. No evidence has since been produced to prove ElBaradei’s judgment in error.
But his defiant stance earned him a CIA tap on his phone in Vienna, according to The Washington Post. “It’s dangerous to be proved wrong, but sometimes it’s even more dangerous to be proved right in the end,” ElBaradei has said.
But there were other rewards. In 2005, ElBaradei and the agency he headed were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to prevent the use of nuclear energy for military purposes and to ensure its use for peaceful purposes in the safest possible way.
During his three-term tenure at the IAEA, ElBaradei called for a five-year world-wide moratorium on plans for new uranium enrichment and fission facilities, and pressed the existing nuclear powers to renounce their weapons for good. He vigorously promoted the peaceful uses of nuclear power and strove to make radiation therapy available in less-developed countries for the treatment of diseases such as cancer and malaria.
In 2010, after 12 years as its head of IAEA, ElBaradei retired and founded the National Association for Change, a non-partisan group that works for democratic reforms of Egypt’s electoral process. He believes that a version of an American-style deomocracy is possible.
“I have very much a concept of an American Dream. An American Dream meaning to be free, to be able to achieve what you want to do, to have an environment within which you can excel,” he told the Academy of Achievement. “I have always been an admirer of the American Dream. We grew up admiring the freedom you have in the U.S., the equality, the egalitarian system you have in the U.S. And I hope, with all the restrictions that we have seen after 9/11 that we will someday go back where the U.S. American Dream will be the way I saw it when I was growing up here in the ‘60s. It’s a model that might not be replicated 100 percent everywhere else, but the basic element of the American dream is the future for humanity.”
When Mubarak’s government refused to negotiate with election reform advocates in 2010, ElBaradei returned to self-imposed exile in Vienna. His wife, Aida Elkachef, has said she would prefer her husband not run for the presidency of Egypt. They have two grown children. He returned to Egypt on Thursday after massive street demonstrations swept Egypt’s cities and was reportedly put under house arrest.
(ElBaradei with his wife Aida and daughter Laila, in Vienna, 2005)
The substance of Elbaradei’s biography was adapted from one posted on the website of the Academy of Achievement. To see the complete Academy of Achievement interview at http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/elb0int-1