The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Tunisia, Egypt and ElBaradei

In the Guardian, my friend Jack Shenker talks to Mohamed ElBaradei about the risks of a Tunisia-like uprising in Egypt — which ElBaradei does not want:

"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."

I'm not surprised this is ElBaradei's position. This has been most Muslim Brotherhood leaders' position for a while too, as well as secular parties like the Wafd. There is widespread fear, as I touched upon in my op-ed yesterday, that an Egyptian uprising would awaken some terrible impulses that lie not far beneath the surface of Egyptian society: sectarianism, class revanchisme, and populism. Of course the regime is largely to blame for these potential outcomes, and thus far has not showed any sign of having a political (as opposed to economic) response to what's happened in Tunisia. But this debate — change from within vs. revolutionary change — is likely to intensify in the next few months, as we get closer to September presidential race.