Sadly for Egypt, Mohamed El-Baradei has fallen in with marginal voices that want to wage war on Israel and the West, writes Abdel-Moneim Said
Mohamed El-Baradei is an international luminary beyond a doubt. Widely recognised for his competence and expertise, his career led him to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has become increasingly central in international relations in the past two decades. That he won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with this agency and was subsequently inundated with a host of awards from other prominent international organisations and honorary degrees from several prestigious universities offers further testimony to the considerable good he has brought to the world we live in.
Nor can one deny that one of the reasons for his success was his proficiency in dealing with the world as it is, as opposed to how he wished it would be. An idealistic world would be fair and justice would be blind to keep it from discriminating between peoples or nations. In the far from utopian world that El-Baradei had to deal with as chief of the IAEA, there were five nuclear powers and then there was the rest of the world that did not have the right to become nuclear powers. Within this heavily skewed framework some countries developed nuclear arsenals and the world learned to live with them as nuclear powers while others that sought to develop nuclear capacities were challenged, subjected to inspections and internationally ostracised. Israel, India and Pakistan are in the former category, with Iraq, Iran and North Korea in the latter.
Such patterns of discrimination do not apply solely to the IAEA. Anyone who has studied international organisations or worked in them knows that persons in positions of responsibility, in particular, have to tread a tightrope stretching over a deep chasm in order to reconcile contradictions in the world order, ideals with great power interests, principles with political exigencies. Among the best testimonies to that momentous challenge is the work of Boutros Boutros-Ghali who served one term as UN secretary-general. El-Baradei proved more successful in his domain. A Nobel Prize on top of three successive terms as IAEA director speak not only of his administrative expertise but also of the political acumen he brought to bear in extremely complex and delicate situations.
So what happened when El-Baradei returned to Egypt, bearing with him all that experience acquired from a long career in turning practical realities to the service of noble ends? Such pragmatism is not to be scoffed at as it realises worthy aims without destroying the system. Yet it seems he suddenly changed tack upon arriving home. After a lifelong silence on domestic affairs he began to air his views on political reform, injecting some new life into questions of political and constitutional reform. These issues have been longstanding subjects of public debate, even if they had recently been overshadowed by other concerns. And whether the dispute centred around sweeping constitutional reform or the amendment of one or two constitutional articles, or on the need for foreign electoral monitoring versus other practical solutions for monitoring the polls, there were no holds barred in the discussion over Egypt's present and future. But it is another thing entirely to call for a boycott of the elections unless the constitution is altered in a certain prescribed way beforehand. That is not discussion, or at least not the type that remains within the framework of the philosophy and principles that underlie the entire political process. In fact, it is more in the nature of a diktat to Egypt's political forces, including those that are in the majority and are perfectly willing to engage in a fair and honourable debate with El-Baradei or anyone else over their record on safeguarding national security and steering the process of social, economic and political change over the past three decades, inclusive of the process of absorbing the 40 million more Egyptians who were born during this period.
Had El-Baradei been gripped by the boycott mentality while serving the IAEA he would never have been able to accomplish his goals or those of this organisation. If he had demanded a boycott of Israel because it violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty he wouldn't have been able to complete his first term as IAEA director. In fact, his particular genius in this position was his ability to create international consensus among powers that were inherently contradictory, to keep them moving forward step by step, and to restrain them from resorting to the Security Council until all possible avenues had been exhausted, as occurred with Iran. Combined with this, he had a remarkable flair for wording reports in ways that may at times have made Iran look innocent and at other times guilty but that always kept the door to diplomatic solutions open.
But now El-Baradei has assumed a posture new to him and to the world he wants to change. This one is more inclined to gesturing than to working constructively for change. It is more enamoured with boycotting and withdrawing than with the search for ways and means to gradually shift reality from one state to another. Insight into how this might have occurred comes to us from the position El-Baradei took on the relationship between Egypt and Gaza, with respect to which this seasoned lawyer and politician sided with Hamas and those cheering for it in Egypt over Egypt's clear national security interests.
The groups currently championing Hamas in this debate are completely oblivious to the coup Hamas engineered against the Palestinian Authority, the only Palestinian authority recognised by the international community, of which El-Baradei was part as IAEA chief until a few months ago. It entirely escapes them that the tunnels used to smuggle arms to and from Egypt have turned Sinai into a playground for smugglers and terrorists, some of whom have already carried out deadly bombings in Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh after having been trained in Gaza, and others of whom have formed terrorist cells awaiting orders from Hizbullah and/or Iran to carry out plans for bombing ships in the Suez Canal. On top of this, they have been seized by a form of collective amnesia with regard to the incursion of some three-quarters of a million Palestinians into Sinai, not because El-Baradei wasn't in Egypt at the time but because the solution he proposes is to turn Rafah into a Palestinian free zone. Now, to them, this might echo Hamas's demands. In the opinion of others it fits perfectly with Israel's well-known scheme to turn Sinai into a means to shed its responsibility for Gaza. How is it that a man who achieved so much success by means of his ability familiarise himself with extremely intricate cases appears so unfamiliar with the case of Gaza? He even seems unaware of some of the most elementary facts, which tell us that all the transit points for people, apart from one, are between Gaza and Israel, that the movement through these points is regulated by an international agreement, and that Hamas preferred breaking this agreement and subjecting the whole of Gaza to a blockade over stationing Palestinian forces along the border.
What would make a person such as El-Baradei and even the handful of authentic liberals who surround him suspend all their political knowledge and experience and turn into orators, talk-show guests, and satellite TV celebrities instead of getting down to the brass tacks of making change? I can find no explanation for this from my studies of politics in Egypt apart from the following. El-Baradei must have been hijacked by a political group that has always remained on the margins of political life in Egypt because its chief aim is to break the Egypt- Israel Peace Treaty and plunge Egypt once again into a state of war and conflict with Israel and the Western world. Its means towards this end is the intensive use of the media to hurl slander and other verbal projectiles. As the Egyptian people know, such tactics might be exciting for a day or two, but they ultimately prove to have no noteworthy value. They also have a sharp enough memory to realise that the ministers that make up El-Baradei's entourage today were once very much a part of our current political establishment. They simultaneously recall that some of the loudest of them had not seen the light of democracy until very recently, that even as they pay lip service to freedom and liberty they support despotism in other countries, that their readiness to demand an open society is coupled with a belief in the need for the pervasive intervention of the state, and that they are in perpetual conflict with the rest of the world.
Such attitudes and beliefs are neither consistent nor coherent. The countries unfortunate enough to have experienced their ideas in practice ended up as flagrant dictatorships in which there was "no voice above the call to battle" that never came, in which the individual was crushed beneath the banner of the "public good", and in which whole groups were suppressed in the name of the "national interest". The people who hijacked El-Baradei have gone by many names in the past few years. I suspect they will deprive Egypt of the great potential of a very talented individual who could have fielded himself as president through one of the currently existing legitimate political parties, or as an independent, in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. If he succeeded we would have had a great and honourable contest; if not, our political life would have been enriched by fresh ideas and visions and, moreover, the advantages and disadvantages of the current regime would have been thrown into sharper relief. Unfortunately, as the situation stands so far, it appears that all Egypt will gain is a new or modified name for that same group of people who defy both time and history.