Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei arrived Sunday at the center of the political unrest in Cairo, as protesters engaged in a standoff with the military. He was expected to reiterate his call for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, according to multiple international news reports.
ElBaradei, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his work as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on American television news shows Sunday that President Barack Obama should hasten calls for Mubarak to step down, saying the 30-year Egyptian leader possesses no credibility as a democratic reformer.
“People have been saying, or demonstrating, for [Mubarak] to leave today, and saying he should be put to trial. If he wants to save his skin, if he has an iota of patriotism, I would advise him to leave today and save the country,” ElBaradei said on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS.
ElBaradei said the Obama Administration was undermining its credibility in the region by not pushing more decisively for Mubarak’s departure, and he downplayed concerns that a rapid regime change would engender a power vacuum that could be quickly filled by Islamic extremists.
“The next step, as everybody now agrees upon, is a transitional period and a government of national salvation, of national unity, and that there is grounds for a new constitution, a free and fair election -- these are the basic demands and what every Egyptian is agreeing upon.… Egypt needs to catch up with the rest of the world. We need to be free, democratic, and a society where people have the right to live in freedom and dignity.”
BBC News reported that ElBaradei arrived in Tahrir (Independence) Square, which demonstrators have established as a hub of the political unrest. In an evident flexing of military muscle, two air force jets and a helicopter repeatedly buzzed the square, and a number of tanks arrived but were blocked by protesters, the British news channel said.
ElBaradei, who has been mentioned as a prospective challenger and successor to Mubarak, called the appointment of longtime Mubarak aide Omar Suleiman, the country’s top intelligence official, as vice president “a hopeless, desperate attempt by Mubarak to stay in power. I think it is loud and clear from everybody in Egypt that Mubarak has to leave today, and this is non-negotiable for every Egyptian.”
“I have been authorized -- mandated -- by the people who organized these demonstrations and by many other powerful Egyptians to agree on a national unity government,” ElBaradei said on CNN. “I should be in touch soon with the army, and we need to work together. The army is part of Egypt, and we have the highest respect for them as civilians, and we need to work together to get Egypt out of where we are today -- a country that's falling apart.”
The Obama Administration has called for open elections in Egypt and distanced itself from longtime ally Mubarak, a process ElBaradei called insufficient and damaging to the U.S. reputation in the country.
“I can tell you in honesty, as a friend of the U.S., that your policy right now is a failed policy,” he said. “It is a policy that is lagging behind; it is having the effect here in Egypt that you are losing whatever is left of credibility." ElBaradei added, "I would like to see a democratic Egypt that is able to have a friendly relationship with the U.S…. there is no reason to believe that a democracy here will not lead to a better relationship with the U.S. based on respect and equity.”
Obama should ask for Mubarak’s resignation, the opposition leader said, so as “not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, ‘It's time for you to go. Leave in dignity before things go out of hand’.”
ElBaradei dismissed concerns that a quick turnover in Cairo could give rise to a fundamentalist regime like the one in Iran.
“I'm quite confident of that,” he said. “This is a myth that was sold by the Mubarak regime, that it's either us, the ruthless dictators, or a Muslim al-Qaida type. The Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with extremism as we have seen in Afghanistan and other places. The Muslim Brotherhood is a religiously conservative group. They are a minority in Egypt.”
Asked about a potential role for himself as interim president, ElBaradei replied, “I'm willing to do whatever I can do to save this country.... If my people here, if the Egyptian people, want me to serve as a bridge from the authoritarian system into democracy, I will not let them down. I owe it to them.”