Talk like an Egyptian
When Egypt had parliamentary elections only two months ago, they were completely rigged. The party of President Hosni Mubarak left the opposition with only 3% of the seats. The American government said that it was "dismayed". Well, frankly, I was dismayed that all it could say is that it was dismayed. The word was hardly adequate to express the way the Egyptian people felt.
Then, as protests built in the streets of Egypt following the overthrow of Tunisia's dictator, I heard US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's assessment that the government in Egypt is "stable" and "looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people". I was flabbergasted - and puzzled. What did she mean by stable, and at what price? Is it the stability of 29 years of 'emergency' laws, a president with imperial power for 30 years, a parliament that is almost a mockery, a judiciary that is not independent? What we see in Egypt is pseudo-stability. Real stability only comes with a democratically elected government.
If one would like to know why the US does not have credibility in the Middle East, that is precisely the answer. People were absolutely disappointed in the way the US reacted to Egypt's last election. Washington reaffirmed their belief that the US is applying a double standard for its friends, and siding with an authoritarian regime just because it thinks it represents American interests. We are staring at social disintegration, economic stagnation, political repression, and we do not hear anything from the Americans, or, for that matter, the Europeans.
So when America says the Egyptian government is looking for ways to respond to the needs of the Egyptian people, I feel like saying, "Well, it's too late!" This isn't even good realpolitik. We have seen what happened in Tunisia, and before that in Iran. That should teach people there is no stability except when you have government freely chosen by its own people.
Of course, the West has been sold the idea that the only options in the Arab world are between authoritarian regimes and Islamic jihadists. That's bogus. If we are talking about Egypt, there is a whole rainbow variety of people who are secular, liberal, market-oriented, and if you give them a chance they will organise themselves to elect a government that is modern and moderate. They want desperately to catch up with the rest of the world.
Instead of equating political Islam with al-Qaeda all the time, take a closer look. Only a few weeks ago, the leader of a group of ultra-conservative Muslims in Egypt issued a fatwa calling for me to "repent" for inciting public opposition to Mubarak, and declaring the ruler has a right to kill me, if I do not desist. This sort of thing moves us toward the Dark Ages. But did we hear a single denunciation from the Egyptian government? No.
Despite all this, I have hoped to find a way toward change through peaceful means. In a country like Egypt, it's not easy to get people to put down their names and government ID numbers on a document calling for fundamental democratic reforms. Yet a million people have done just that. The regime, like the monkey that sees nothing and hears nothing, simply ignored us. As a result, the young people of Egypt have lost patience, and what you've seen in the streets these last few days has all been organised by them.
Each day it gets harder to work with Mubarak's government, even for a transition, and for many of the people you talk to in Egypt, that is no longer an option. They think he has been there 30 years, he is 82 years old, and it is time for a change. For them, the only option is a new beginning. How long this can go on, I don't know. In Egypt, as in Tunisia, there are other forces than just the president and the people. The army's been quite neutral so far, and I would expect it to remain that way. The soldiers and officers are part of the Egyptian people. They know the frustrations. They want to protect the nation.
But this week the Egyptian people broke the barrier of fear, and once that is broken, there is no stopping them.
Mohamed ElBaradei was the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He was awarded the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. © 2011, Newsweek Inc. The views expressed by the author are personal