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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.

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