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Beyond El-Baradei
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 12 - 2009

Change should be brought about by deep and comprehensive dialogue across all social and political stakeholders, not at the behest of one individual, writes Abdel-Moneim Said
I took heart from various reports regarding the nomination of Mohamed El-Baradei as a presidential candidate, as well as from other names that were aired at the same time, such as Nobel Prize laureate Ahmed Zuweil and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. The reason I was heartened was that these eminent individuals, whose contributions in the service of humanity or the Arab region have achieved so much for Egypt's international reputation, would greatly enrich intellectual and political debate during the presidential campaign season. It has always been my opinion that the National Democratic Party (NDP) candidate merits rivals of such a stature that the party's successes and failures can be treated in the context of a dynamic and sophisticated dialogue that will steer Egypt through the next decade, which I believe will be critical to the realisation of the Egyptian people's aspirations for their welfare in a modern advanced society.
Moussa has said that he had received the appeal for his presidential nomination from the people. While we are still awaiting his reply, it appears that the same people -- or a different part of the people -- delivered the same appeal to El-Baradei, who did respond. His answer took the form of an outline of a general framework for his entrance into the campaign arena. A graduate of the Egyptian school of diplomacy, El-Baradei excelled in the international domain where his diplomatic career was crowned with the Nobel Peace Prize, which is only awarded to those who have made significant contributions to human progress and the cause of world peace. In addition, President Hosni Mubarak awarded him the Order of the Nile, which is generally granted to heads of state and others who have performed noble services for mankind. Clearly, therefore, we should take the views he presented on his nomination for the next presidential elections in the same earnestness and sincerity in which he expressed them. This is no ordinary person whom we might suspect of hungering for fame. He has no shortage of that. Nor is he the type to grovel to the public or curry favour with certain circles. His record in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) testifies to the dignity and integrity with which he dealt with powers great and small, and countries armed -- or arming themselves -- with nuclear weapons.
In the spirit of the sincerity that he merits, therefore, we should be frank enough to point out that after 27 years away from Egypt he will need to catch his breath a little upon leaving the fray of international diplomacy and take stock. As eminent as he was in that realm, there is a vast difference between it and a state and society encapsulated in a name that rings throughout history. My greatest fear is that in the course of his extensive experience abroad he will have formed an impression of Egypt shaped solely by the din of "opinions and voices" that has begun to reverberate on the surface with increasing intensity as the result of the revolution in information technology and an unprecedented level of political freedoms. Beneath that din there was no political, economic or social vacuum over the past 27 years. Egypt has undergone enormous changes during this period, not least of which is that its population soared from 40 million at the outset of the 1980s to 80 million today.
This vast demographic change is a huge subject in its own right. The quantitative and qualitative developments it brought in the economy, society, politics and even geography of the country are far more profound than appear on the surface; far too profound to be treated with hastily made or ready-to-order judgements of the sort we have become familiar with, and to which El-Baradei appears to be growing accustomed as well. When things are put in their proper perspective and given their proper weight in study and value, many of the issues that El-Baradei mentioned in his message might be treated a little more seriously than he has so far.
For example, he holds, rightfully, "the parliamentary and presidential electoral process must be held in the manner of all developed and developing democratic nations." However, he then makes two conflicting demands. The first is for an autonomous impartial national committee responsible for organising all the arrangements for the elections so as to ensure their probity. Such a committee already exists and, although it was set up for the presidential elections, the scope of its powers and authority could be expanded to cover the parliamentary elections as well. The second demand is for full judicial supervision of the elections. In Egypt, this is usually understood as one judge per polling station. Now, none of the developed and developing democracies that El-Baradei asks us to emulate has such an arrangement. For that matter, as long as there is an autonomous impartial national committee to oversee all the particulars for running the elections, what is the point of paralysing the entire judiciary for the duration of the electoral process and, moreover, dragging it into the mire of political whims and interests? Also, one can understand El-Baradei's demand for international observers, with regard to which the NDP might well entertain the idea of striking a balance between the need to increase the credibility of the electoral process and the need to safeguard Egyptian sovereignty. However, it should be borne in mind that it was not just the NDP that took exception to the idea of international observers. Many other political forces and parties also voiced the objection that international electoral monitoring was a form of outside intervention in Egypt's domestic affairs.
If we are to take El-Baradei seriously we must also ask him to take Egyptians seriously and not ask them to dismantle our existing constitution and institutions so as to tailor new conditions to permit his nomination for the presidency, without him taking part in the necessary reform process. This is not the Egyptian way. Egypt is not a damsel pining for her knight to race home from Vienna on his white charger. Nor is it the type of country where change is made by the stroke of a pen or at the behest of a single individual, even if that individual is a Nobel Prize laureate. This is not to say that I disagree with the former IAEA chief; Egypt does need substantial constitutional changes. However, these changes must be the fruit of a deep and extensive dialogue among various Egyptian political and social forces, as opposed to a response to the "voices and views" aired by certain groups for whom we have not a single criterion to substantiate that they truly represent the Egyptian people.
Frankly, I was additionally surprised by El-Baradei's remark that "we all agree on the nature of our problems." I had thought that he was a little more in touch with Egyptian reality than his words subsequently proved him to be. In Egyptian society, as in all societies, there is considerable divergence of opinion on the issues and how to prioritise them. This applies to the housing problem, the relationship between the transition to a market economy and social justice, and even the modern civil state, over which there is not a great consensus. During the last constitutional amendment process, there was widespread contention over Article 8 and whether the provision citing Islamic law as a chief source of legislation conformed to the concept of the civil state. Likewise, when the Muslim Brotherhood published its platform for a proposed political party not long ago there was considerable consternation over its implied agenda of bringing about a totally theocratic state, ruled by a body of Muslim clergymen.
To a considerable extent, the ideas aired in El-Baradei's message reflected his approach to the directorship of the IAEA. El-Baradei and the IAEA jointly received the Nobel Prize for two reasons. The first is that they succeeded in elevating the nuclear non-proliferation to the highest level of international priority, establishing the spread of nuclear weapons as the gravest threat to the stability of the world order. The second was that they had transformed the IAEA from a virtually unheard of international organisation into a chief player and accepted forum in complex negotiations over curbing nuclear proliferation. These achievements were formidable. Yet although El-Baradei's title was director, for the most part he acted as inspector. His job was to reveal -- and the disconcerting thing was that his agency didn't -- secret nuclear programmes while virtually all now known were discovered by means other than the activities of IAEA inspectors.
The inspector problem emerged again in reports on nuclear programmes that the IAEA submitted to the UN Security Council. Generally, the reports could not establish conclusively the existence of a problem or the non-existence of a problem, as has become palpably clear in the case of Iran. If they determined that Iran had a military nuclear programme, Tehran would be destroyed. If they determined that no such programme existed, the IAEA would be destroyed! The cost of the ongoing dilemma was that the names of some Arab countries, such as Syria and Egypt, were entered onto the list of parties to come under scrutiny for their nuclear behaviour, whereas the entire problem could have been solved early on. To be fair, El-Baradei has had the courage to criticise himself. He blamed himself, for instance, for not shouting at the top of his lungs, in 2003, that Iraq had no secret nuclear programme. But it is equally true that his heavy emphasis on inspection drew criticism from none other than his successor, Yukiya Amano, who said that under El-Baradei the IAEA focussed more on preventing nuclear proliferation than it did on facilitating peaceful uses of nuclear energy, which is the agency's original mission. In addition, the overemphasis on inspection sometimes let situations slip out of the IAEA's grip. For example, the insistence on inspecting Israel's nuclear installations before laying the appropriate groundwork ultimately resulted in no more than an aerial "over-flight" of the Dimona nuclear reactor. Then the situation took an unexpected turn, whereby Israel announced that, as an active member of the IAEA, it would now like to confess that it is a de facto nuclear power, like Pakistan and India, and that it had certain suggestions in this regard.
On foreign policy, which El-Baradei did not touch on in his response to the appeals for his nomination, there is a difference between the logic of an agency such as the IAEA and the logic of a state. This problem was encountered by another prospective candidate, Amr Moussa, in reverse order so to speak, when he moved from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Arab League General Secretariat and had to be reminded, on one occasion, that he was no longer a member of the Egyptian government. El-Baradei will not need anyone to remind him that he is no longer the IAEA director; however, the legacy of this phase in his career will continue to shadow him. For example, how will he deal with Iran? In the past he has indicated his good intentions towards Tehran, which may have been the correct posture from the IAEA's standpoint but may not necessarily be the correct posture from the Egyptian standpoint. In all events, his position ultimately proved futile; a few days before his tenure ended he confessed that attempts to reach an understanding with Iran had reached a dead end. More importantly, how would he deal with Israel? His vision for creating a nuclear free zone is different from the one that Egypt has been working to achieve. Perhaps unwittingly, his handling of the Israeli nuclear portfolio led to Israel's acknowledgment that it is a de facto nuclear power and, then, to an Israeli proposal regarding the "P-3" -- the three powers (India, Pakistan and Israel) that remain outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- a proposal that Amano vowed, during his recent visit to Egypt, would only pass over his dead body.
Perhaps the core problem with El-Baradei's method is that it leaves virtually all ends loose, with no progress in any direction, good or bad. Could he have done more than he has? Could he have resolved the Iranian question, warned of an aggravating North Korean question, curtailed the possibility of the spread of the "Indian model" or done more to support civil nuclear programmes? Could he have improved IAEA operations so as to enable it to unearth secret nuclear activities and to make more precise estimates? It is impossible to say. However, one is left with the fundamental fear that the IAEA's successful experience in disseminating the idea of non-proliferation may not be transferable to the Egyptian case or commensurate to Egyptian needs. A contemporary civil state founded upon modernism, moderation, and sound government has been the Egyptian dream since the age of Mohamed Ali. To restate this dream or couch it in fancier language two centuries later adds little to what we already know and contributes little to the dissemination of the idea. What Egypt needs are practical ways and means to deal with the major problems and challenges that have stood in the way of the realisation of this dream and that have caused our society to approach it inch-by-inch instead of in leaps and bounds like other countries.
Speaking from one liberal to another, no liberal programme advocates a candidate's right to impose his conditions in advance on the political game. Apart from being a form of arrogance, it overlooks the major controversy currently taking place in Egypt over the type of political system it should have. The crucial question under debate, here, is how to move our country towards the finest form of democracy. El-Baradei could contribute along with others to producing an answer to this question. After all, reaching that goal can only be the product of a sustained dialogue and a struggle, not against the authorities but with a panoply of political forces that may have various other ideas in mind. Yet it appears that El-Baradei wants other people to do the fighting for him and then to hand him the presidency on a silver platter.
We have come to the time to get serious. Politics can no longer be mere words or conversations with "voices" coming across virtual space or even from the steps of syndicate bureaus. Nor is it an inspection process of a nation whose people are struggling for a better life. Politics is a day-to-day practice pursued through existing institutions, even if an agreement is eventually reached to change them. El-Baradei, I am sure, can add much to this ongoing process in Egypt, on the condition that he returns as one of us, albeit with all the admiration and respect due to one that won the Nobel Prize and has been awarded the Order of the Nile. He must additionally come to terms with two facts. First, Egyptians listen and discuss, but they do not take lessons from anyone. Second, there is a big difference between the state, people, society and history that is Egypt and the IAEA.

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