Exclusive: ElBaradei Interview. Egyptian Opposition Leader: The U.S. Must Choose Which Side It’s On

Leading opposition figure says the Obama administration must decide if it's with Mubarak or the Egyptian people

ElBaradei (justicentric)

CAIRO - This time the call goes through, and after a few rings, the voice that picks up on the other end is that of Ali ElBaradei. "You want to talk to my brother? Hold on a moment while I ask him," he says.

The brother of Mohammed ElBaradei turns to someone near him: "It's the Italian paper, La Stampa. They already called two days ago: what should I tell them?"

A moment later, the voice speaking into the telephone is the one we've come to recognize from United Nations podiums, where the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency spoke about the existence (or lack thereof) of nuclear weapons in both Iraq and Iran, and elsewhere, work that earned him the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. He returned last week to his native Cairo to join in the massive protests against the 30-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

"So how are things going in Italy?" Mohammed ElBaradei jokes.

La Stampa: Calmer than in Egypt. Aren't you under house arrest?

ElBaradei: That's what the authorities say, they even cut off our water supply. But today I will challenge them and go out anyway. Let's see what happens. I don't see a huge police presence around here, I think they announced my arrest in order to intimidate the protesters, the message being: "If we take such a well-known person as ElBaradei, just imagine what we'll do to you."

Will it work?

I don't think so. People are back out on the streets today, and will keep doing so until Mubarak goes.

Did you find his speech and new appointments convincing?

It is an insult to the intelligence of the Egyptian people, just empty words. Mubarak has been in power for 30 years, and everybody knows he names members of the government at his pleasure. How can he imagine that he can place all the blame on the executive and promise phantom reforms, and expect to be believed?

So what's the solution now?

What the people on the streets demand. Mubarak must understand that his time is up, and he must peacefully cede power. At that point, we'll have to build a transitional government, a coalition able to represent all society. This executive will need to change the parts of the constitution that deny democracy. Once the job is done, Egypt will need to go to the polls in free elections to choose a new parliament and a new president.

Do you put yourself forth as a candidate to lead this transitional government?

Anybody who has the good will to really believe in democracy can be a candidate, but the choice rests with the people.

Do people in the streets applaud the military because they hope it will turn against Mubarak?

That's what I hope, too. Perhaps that's the key to this crisis.

How do you view the protest?

It's an extraordinary, spontaneous phenomenon that really represents the whole Egyptian society. Friday, after the mosque prayers, all sorts of people took to the streets, the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate. All of the country's social strata have peacefully expressed a resentment they have long harbored. And that's why Mubarak cannot pretend like nothing's happened.

There has been violence, too.

That's the police's fault, they reacted in an atrocious way. The protest was peaceful, but the response of police officers caused it to degenerate. Still, despite this and despite some looting that has immediately been condemned, the overwhelming majority of protesters have continued just expressing their ideas. The violence will backfire on Mubarak, just like the empty words of his speech.

The international community fears Egypt will plunge into chaos.

They are wrong. That is a senseless fear. Why should a democratic government, one that is representative of all the people, drag the country toward instability?

Because it might be led by the Muslim Brotherhood, for example.

Another senseless fear. The regime has used Islamic extremism as a bogeyman to convince the West to support it, coming up with bizarre links to Al-Qaida, Hamas and with Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood is just a conservative religious group like Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem or born-again Christians in the United States. They represent a minority of Egyptians, and in any case they will never have the power to subvert out constitution, which calls for a civil government at the helm of the country.

So you're asking the United States to abandon Mubarak?

Washington can't have it both ways. Now it must choose, either Mubarak or the people. The two are no longer compatible. On the streets, one does not hear a lot of anti-American slogans, and I have great respect for Obama. But the United States must decide if it wants to apply to Egypt the democratic principles it preaches all over the world. All our youth want is the American dream.

Will you continue support the peace process in Israel?

We are in favor of it, but you should ask (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu why the dialogue isn't moving forward. There is a feeling of resentment because Israel is occupying Palestinian land and Mubarak has been an uncritical player in the negotiations. This way, though, we have achieved nothing: The United States, too, now has the possibility to review its whole Middle East policy.

Do you mean that the protests in Tunisia and Egypt represent the beginning of a new era in the entire region?

I hope so. It's not possible to continue to rule through violence, the denial of rights and hunger. It is time the Arab world enters the 21st century, and the West must help bring us there.

Read the original article in Italian

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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