Although the al-Shorouk interview of Muhammad al-Baradei is now almost a week old, we hope you’ll forgive TBE our tardiness in getting to it. We’ve been busy conducting important socio-anthropological research on the manners and customs of the modern Americans (to be published at a later date) and contemplating what the TBE style guide’s position should be on Arabic names, like al-Baradei’s, where our house style (al-Baradei) clashes with the person’s preferred spelling (ElBaradei). So far we’re sticking to our stylistic guns.
The interview is long, so we’re dividing it into even smaller parcels than the original interview, which appeared in three parts from December 23-25. For background reading on democracy in Egypt, please see these recent TBE posts:
- Our thoughts on Shadi Hamid’s piece in the latest issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, in which he discusses steps the US can take to support democratization in Egypt. And a translation of an al-Shorouk article on US aid to Egypt included in the 2010 budget.
- Reflections on what form a democratic Egypt might take, and how we would expect its political forces to shape up.
- Our initial assessment of an al-Baradei candidacy.
- Finally, some supporters created a placeholder website for an al-Baradei candidacy in 2011. It’s content-free so far but well-made.
In case you were wondering, we think if we made a word cloud of this portion of the interview, the biggest word would be “constitution.” That should give you some idea of its contents.
From al-Shorouk’s December 23 edition:
Al-Baradei In His First Comprehensive Interview With al-Shorouk (Part 1 of 3): “Change Can’t Wait Until The Election”
Gamal Matar interviewed Muhammad al-Baradei in Vienna:
… (We skipped the introductory matter, which might be of interest to students of Egyptian diplomatic history but has little bearing on the present) …
He speaks in a calm and serious voice and in a simple manner. Do not hesitate to address him by his first name, he says. He continues speaking enthusiastically, gesturing with his hands when stressing a point. The interview took place in a house to which he moved recently, on the fourth floor of a main street in the heart of the Austrian capital. The interview took place more than two weeks after the end of his work at the IAEA. The interview continued for approximately 5.5 hours, during which he apologized for taking numerous phone calls but never stopped talking, except once for coffee and tea.
Since Muhammad al-Baradei announced his intention to contest the next presidential election “if appropriate conditions are provided to guarantee the safety and integrity of the process,” numerous reactions have appeared. One side launched a press and political campaign against him and accused him of “arrogance” and described him as “the president of conditions,” and said that his talk of amending the constitution amounted to a “constitutional coup.” At the same time, many academic, political and media personalities welcomed his position, which “stirs up a lot of stagnant water in the Egyptian political scene.”
Al-Shorouk traveled to Vienna to understand his vision of the current situation in Egypt, and his intentions and expectations for the future…
When did you begin thinking about running for the presidency?
The subject of running for the presidency came as a surprise to me and was not on my mind. Like any Egyptian, I follow events at home, of course, but I had announced my intention not to engage in public life again, especially because my work these last twelve years has been difficult, and my wife and I wanted to finally spend some peaceful time together, and do the things we were unable to do for a long time.
But you took the “surprise” calmly, and announced that your candidacy depended upon amendments to the laws and the constitution, which some described as impossible…
What I am demanding goes beyond the technical term “amendments.” If we want a real new beginning in Egypt, we should stop talking about “amendments” to remove legal and constitutional impediments only. These amendments may help us in the 2011 presidential election, but they are merely a “patch.” The important thing is what comes after that. The matter is not about one person only but rather about Egypt as a country.
Democracy takes a long time. It is not like making a cup of coffee. It needs time. But this doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from the experiences of others, like what happened in Eastern Europe with the fall of the Soviet Union, where they moved from 60 years of communist rule to democratic rule with free elections and a free press. At the same time we should not allow time to be an excuse. We might need a year or two to accomplish what we want, but it is a mistake to say we need 50 years, and the arguments that say we do are flimsy.
What arguments for postponing democracy do you see as “flimsy”?
For example, people say Egypt is poor, and this is not a sufficient reason. A long time ago I was in India to receive the Indira Ghandi prize for peace. India has higher levels of illiteracy and poverty than Egypt, and the poor there, not the middle class, brought down governments at least twice, because they did not benefit from India’s economic opening.
If we are serious about democracy then there should be a number of steps. The first, quick step is guaranteeing the cleanliness and integrity of elections, and full judicial supervision. International supervision is also important. The idea that this is an impingement on national sovereignty is incorrect, because international supervision does not deny our sovereignty, but rather increases it and sends a message to the international community that we are members of this community. We are part of the global system and cannot leave it.
Is a guarantee of clean elections as a first step enough to make you decide to participate?
Before thinking about elections, I refuse to enter a system that denies me the right to an independent candidacy. There is not a parliamentary system in the world that denies a person the right to run as an independent. I looked at the French constitution. It states that to run as an independent one must receive 500 votes from local councils, out of a total of 45,000, meaning less than 1%. The Mexican constitution imposes no conditions. I reviewed the American, Chilean, Senegalese and others, conducting a study of constitutions east and west, north and south, and didn’t find what we have in Egypt anywhere, where the constitution contains two contradictory premises, meaning that no independent can currently run in Egypt.
Today, we talk about a party with a majority in parliament, so the conditions really make it impossible for an independent candidate to receive the necessary number of signatures. In theory the constitution does not disallow an independent candidate, but practically it is impossible. The constitution should not be a formal framework but rather a viable framework for the application of laws.
Are there other areas of the constitution that in your view need revising?
All constitutions that can be described as democratic limit terms to two, whereas you find no such limit in the Egyptian constitution. The Egyptian constitution contains 15 typographical errors. If we are not able to publish or be meticulous with our laws, then this is the biggest sign of where we are as a people. If this is the condition of our constitution, what must be the condition of other services, from the treatment of poor people in the countryside to the teaching of children in the village, does this reflect our values?
In a constitution that seeks to consolidate democracy, one authority does not prevail over the others. But in the Egyptian constitution I find that there is one branch that dominates in a way unseen in other countries. The executive, represented by the president of the republic, dominates the legislature. The constitution should maintain the boundaries between the branches of government, to guarantee their role in the nation.
What is the difference between “decision-making and enacting,” who does and who decides, the People’s Assembly or the President?
There are 33 draft laws in the constitution. I have not seen this innovation before. The constitution should contain guarantees and be self-sufficient to ensure the people’s freedom, but its articles are contradictory. For example there is a counter-terrorism article, and within it we find the constitution allows the government to enter your home and listen to your conversations. Who defines the crime of terrorism? The civilian judge and not the president. But we find the opposite in the constitution. It speaks in a theoretical way about rights then negates most of them afterwards. There is a difference between legality and legitimacy. Many articles in the constitution lack legitimacy, because they don’t comport with global values, and many times they don’t apply because they are not backed by laws. (TBE: We’re not sure about some of this, as our legal Arabic is subpar.)
The emergency law has ruled Egypt for 30 years, and the constitution is just words on paper, because the standard by which to judge it in reality is: Can the constitution protect me? Does it ensure my freedom or not? In 1975, Anwar Sadat requested that Ismail Fahmi prepare a new constitution. My colleagues and I worked on it in 1975 and we sent it to Sadat that year. We did not compose it ourselves, but rather there was a encyclopedia of world constitutions issued by the General Assembly or the People’s Assembly, and we took the best elements from each. Of course I have not heard anything about that constitution since that day, and I hope to find a copy of it now. We worked on it for more than a month, and it guaranteed a balance of powers between the branches of government and individual rights.
What were Sadat’s motives in requesting a new constitution?
Maybe his motive was that it seemed necessary after the 1973 war. All I know is that Sadat wanted a new constitution, and he asked Ismail Fahmi to promulgate it in secret. The drafting of a new constitution means creating a new human, teaching the citizenry its rights, ensuring justice and rights to freedom and economic development. A constitution is not just a piece of paper, but rather a social contract between all classes of people. We want to go in this direction, and this is the goal we want to achieve.
The people must also demand it. The issue is not just writing (constitutional) articles or voting. We need a complete overhaul over the next three, four or even five decades. The short-term goal is to amend the constitution to elect the president, but this will not solve our problems, because it is possible that this amendment would lead to a “benevolent dictator.” What we need is a new system based on democracy and ensuring a decent life to Egypt’s citizens.