Mohamed ElBaradei Warns of 'Tunisia-Style Explosion' in Egypt
Mohamed ElBaradei says Egyptians 'yearning for change', but draws criticism for refusing to back street-level protests
The Egyptian dissident Mohamed ElBaradei has warned of a "Tunisia-style explosion" in his country as self-immolation protests proliferated and anti-government activists announced plans for a nationwide "day of anger" next week.
But the former UN nuclear weapons chief stopped short of calling on his supporters to take to the streets, prompting scathing criticism from opposition campaigners who believe ElBaradei is squandering a rare opportunity to bring an end to President Hosni Mubarak's three decades of autocratic rule.
Today Ahmed Hashem el-Sayed, 25, from the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, died in hospital after setting himself alight on the roof of his home. It was the latest in a series of self-immolation incidents that have spread through Egypt over the past two days, after the Tunisian vegetable trader Muhammad Bouazizi's self-immolation provided the catalyst for the toppling of his country's president last week.
"What has transpired in Tunisia is no surprise and should be very instructive both for the political elite in Egypt and those in the west that back dictatorships," ElBaradei told the Guardian. "Suppression does not equal stability, and anybody who thinks that the existence of authoritarian regimes is the best way to maintain calm is deluding themselves."
The Nobel peace prize winner repeated his call for the Egyptian government to implement urgent political reforms, claiming that the citizens of the Arab world's largest nation were "yearning desperately for economic and social change" and that without drastic improvements, a "Tunisia-style explosion" in Egypt would be unavoidable. Nearly half of the country's 80 million citizens live on less than £1.25 a day, and despite record GDP growth the majority of the population has become poorer in real terms over the past 20 years.
Yet on the heels of six reported incidents of self-immolation and large anti-government demonstrations planned for next week, ElBaradei refused to throw his weight behind street-level protests, instead expressing concern at the "general state of instability" engulfing the country.
"These things need to be organised and planned properly," said the 68-year-old. "I would like to use the means available from within the system to effect change, such as the petition we are gathering demanding political reform. The government has to send a message to the people saying 'yes, we understand you', and of course, if things do not move then we will have to consider other options including protests and a general strike.
"I still hope that change will come in an orderly way and not through the Tunisian model," he added. "But if you keep closing the door to peaceful change then don't be surprised if the scenes we saw in Tunisia spread across the region."
Grassroots activists accused ElBaradei of timidity. "From day one ElBaradei has proved himself not to be a man of the street," said Hossam El-Hamalawy, a prominent journalist and blogger. "He comes from a diplomatic background and the kind of change he wants is peaceful and gradual, something that will not shake the foundations of the establishment. But unfortunately for him the Egyptian people have far more radical demands than the ones he is articulating: this is not just about creating a clean parliament and a fair presidency, it's about the daily bread and butter of the Egyptian people."
Opposition groups are planning a series of national protests next Tuesday, coinciding with a public holiday designed to celebrate the achievements of the police force – an institution that has galvanised popular anger against the state in recent months after high-profile police torture allegations and the deaths of several Egyptians in police custody.
"We hope it will be big, very big" said Ahmed Salah, one of the organisers. "Whether it will provide the spark that brings down the regime we simply don't know. But I think the most exciting thing about events in Tunisia is that we've seen that when people move, they move for democracy – not for religion, not for elite interests, not for private loyalties. It shows the choice that we're always being presented with in Egypt by Mubarak and the west – a choice between Mubarak's oppression or religious fundamentalism – is a false one."
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre, said the Egyptian opposition had been emboldened by the uprising in Tunisia. "In the last couple days, we've already seen a newfound energy and optimism that wasn't there a month ago. Perception is sometimes more important than reality. And, now, perhaps for the first time, Egyptian opposition groups believe they have a chance.
"Before Tunisia, no one thought it would be possible to unseat Arab leaders any time soon. But now many Egyptians are asking, if the Tunisians can do it, why can't we? After all, conditions in Egypt are worse. Unemployment is higher, and the gap between between the rich and the rest of society is larger."
But he said a popular revolt in Egypt would be more difficult. "The Egyptian regime has always been particularly adept at playing the Islamist card. Tunisia didn't have a large Islamist opposition to frighten people with. There is a minority in Egypt that will stop at nothing to prevent Islamists from even having a chance to gain power. Also, Tunisia wasn't crucial to western security interests.
"Egypt, on the other hand, is the second largest recipient of US aid and is a pro-American pillar in the region. The US can afford to lose Tunisia. But Egypt is a different story. The Obama administration won't take too kindly to the idea of losing Egypt to the opposition, particularly when that opposition is likely to include the Muslim Brotherhood."