ElBaradei live

Mohamed ElBaradei is speaking tonight at Harvard on ‘A new global security system towards a world free from nuclear weapons’. The talk will be broadcast live at 11pm GMT here. Take a look.

Here’s a brief summary of last night’s ‘conversation with Mohamed ElBaradei’. (Apologies if I got anything wrong or missed anything, I was trying to learn the dual in MSA at the same time for a class today and I think brain cells were killing themselves in protest…)

They began talking about ElBaradei’s past decisions as IAEA chief, especially Iraq and the evidence for WMDs – ElBaradei reiterated that there was ‘not an iota of evidence’ for Iraq’s nuclear capability and added that he did not make and never made such statements lightly, knowing their potential impact. Where in international law is regime change, he asked, saying that ‘pulverising’ a country due to a dictator is wrong and that someone should be ‘accountable’ for the loss of life in a war launched on the ‘wrong assumptions’. He went on to discuss the so-called axis of evil, calling them ‘three missed opportunities’ – once you start calling them in biblical terms, he said, you are not serious about a rational response.

The focus switched to the nuclear crisis de nos jours, Iran, where again ElBaradei highlighted missed opportunities. The Iranians, when beginning their nuclear program,were ready to talk to the Bush administration, but the US refused, viewing negotiations as a reward for good behaviour rather than a tool to achieve good behaviour. (ElBaradei called this his ‘fundamental disagreement with diplomacy’.) (It’s obviously parallel to the myopic criticism of Obama’s engagement with Syria, which many are characterising as some kind of ‘reward’ for Assad’s government. Negotiation is a means, not an end…) He talked through the utter failure of the West to deal with an ascendant nuclear Iran – the Europeans talked to the Iranians but were ‘looking over their shoulder’ at America, able only to make empty promises as they knew any agreement would have to involve the US. Iran began to realise the best strategy as far as their nuclear program was concerned was a fait accompli, so moved ahead, but were still ready to engage. ElBaradei pointed out, however, that enrichment became a matter of ‘national pride’; like any other country with nuclear weapons, Iran was developing them in order to strengthen its regional position, and domestic opposition meant that the government was and is unwilling to make any moves seen as un-Iranian. The West overplayed its hand, demanding too much too soon, which made Iran go into ‘confrontation mode’. Engagement is still vital and a deal still possible, he says – sanctions do not work, hurting the poor and vulnerable and enriching the rich. Importantly, furthermore, a deal that is ‘not equitable is not sustainable’.

The camel in the room, of course, had nothing to do with nuclear power. With what can only really be described as a cheeky smile, the chairman asked him: ‘What about Egypt?’. There was a pause, ElBaradei made a crack about looking for something do now he was out of office, and everyone laughed. Any system that does not empower people is not working, he said; people are ‘products of their environment’ and a system that represses and humiliates is a ‘recipe for radicalism’. He described the Arab world as ‘disintegrating’, with its peoples repressed by their governments and unfairly treated by the outside world. Egypt needs to make a move from authoritarianism to democracy and empowering people is the only way forward. To this end, he has been calling for peaceful change in Egypt, and trying to show the ‘linkage’ between democracy and economic and social justice. He described his vilification by the Bush administration as ‘child’s play’ compared to that he faces in Egypt.

I have to go to the aforementioned MSA class now but will be back later – the next part of the talk moved on to questions and there was more interesting stuff there.

OK, I’m back. I’m just going to focus on the Egypt-related questions for now, but the nuclear ones were interesting apart from the slightly nervous woman who asked ‘what the plan was’ after a nuclear holocaust, at which ElBaradei looked a little confused and replied ‘Well, if we’re still alive…’ The first questioner asked how likely ElBaradei thought he was to become the next president of Egypt (on a scale of 1-10, ha!) and what his priorities would be as ar-rayyis. ElBaradei made another funny, this one about his wife wishing his chances were 0, then said that he did not know if he would be president but that was not his main concern; his main concern was ‘changing the system’ so the people have a real choice. His priority is democracy, from which everything else would proceed. Another guy asked him why Egyptians didn’t take him at his word when he said the presidency was not his personal concern, and he replied that he is gaining more credibility from focussing on change rather than the personal. (Kind of a half answer…) This is proved, he said, by his 300,000 followers on Facebook, which made me snort Riesling out my nose. A third questioner said that democracy in Egypt is still very much an idea of the educated elite and will not be understood by the fellaheen; ElBaradei basically replied that this was balls and that you should not ‘underestimate the rank and file’, with whom he apparently regularly discusses the work of Miles Davis.

Aside from the fact that I’m now seriously considering adopting ElBaradei’s choice of eyewear, nothing much new came up; the questions on Egypt were broad and unanalytical unlike the nuclear questions which actually challenged him. He’s still emphasising that he’s not some kind of saviour who’s going to ride in and snatch the presidency from under Mubarak’s nose. Fairly reticent on the Egypt questions, he was much more engaged with the nuclear stuff, often speaking at length in response (more on those later). I find him incredibly difficult to read.


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