Lunch With Mohamed ElBaradei

“How can you run for president if you don’t know the job description?’

Mohamed ElBaradei

The Seasons Country Club is a haven from the dust and noise of central Cairo. It is also a world away from the turmoil that just two months ago saw millions of demonstrators take to the streets of Egypt for the revolution that swept President Hosni Mubarak from power.

This afternoon, sitting on the terrace of the club, just 10 minutes’ drive from the pyramids, I watch couples sipping drinks under giant parasols. In the distance, I can hear the faint sound of a tennis match. It is an idyllic spot but it could also seem a dangerously elitist choice of lunch venue for a high-profile politician. As  Mohamed ElBaradei  bustles across the lawn to the table that has been laid for us, I wonder why he has chosen to meet here.

The trim 69-year-old former lawyer and civil servant settles down opposite me and explains that he lives just next door in a gated community. When I ask whether he has chosen to live there for reasons of security, ElBaradei does not accept this obvious get-out. “Not really, we bought the place basically for peace and quiet and a patch of green grass,” he says.

If security was not an issue when the ElBaradei family bought their house a few years ago, it is now. After the riots and demonstrations in Tahrir Square, culminating in the overthrow of Mubarak, ElBaradei – who was prominent in the anti-government protests – has emerged as one of the leading political figures in the new Egypt and has declared his candidacy for the presidency. As a result he is a man with many enemies, both from the old regime and from some of the new political forces emerging in the country.

A few weeks ago, his car was  attacked  when he turned up to vote in a referendum on constitutional changes. “I was lucky I didn’t get hurt,” ElBaradei says. “I could have been killed, actually. They chucked rocks, paving stones. All the glass in the car was completely shattered.” Since that brush with violence, he has stepped up his protection. Seated a couple of tables away is a burly security guard, busily sending text messages. The guard, wearing a grey suit, is more formally dressed than his boss who has opted for an open-necked checked shirt and khaki trousers. His glasses are folded neatly on a napkin beside him.

I ask if his family are concerned by the security situation. “My wife is worried, so is the whole family.” His son is a Microsoft executive, living in Cairo. His daughter, a lawyer, is married to a British investment banker, lives in London and is about to give birth to her second child. ElBaradei says he plans to be there for the birth. “My daughter will kill me if I’m not there,” he grins.

The head waiter comes over to show us the specials. ElBaradei rather hesitantly opts for spaghetti with meatballs. I choose a chicken kebab off the menu and prompt my guest to change his mind. “Actually, I’ll have that as well. It’s a lighter option.”

For years ElBaradei was honored by the Mubarak government as a high-profile Egyptian, who had made a career as a top international civil servant. He served three terms as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna between 1997 and 2009. He was at the center of the controversies surrounding the run-up to the Iraq war, when he infuriated the Bush administration by correctly resisting the idea that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons. In 2005, ElBaradei’s work at the IAEA got the ultimate accolade, when he and the agency were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

So far, so good – as far as the Egyptian government was concerned. But when ElBaradei, who had lived outside Egypt for almost 30 years,  returned to his native land  in 2010 and began to use his prominence to campaign for democratic reforms, all hell broke loose. ElBaradei laughs as he recalls the lies that were relayed about him in the official media. “I went from being an honored Egyptian to being a hate figure – an agent of Israel, my daughter was an atheist, my wife was an Iranian, you name it.”

ElBaradei’s manner is relaxed and genial. As we talk, though, it becomes clear he is anything but relaxed about the situation in Egypt. He is distressed by a situation that he describes as a “political and constitutional mess”. The  ruling military council  that took over as an interim government after the fall of Mubarak has announced it is planning to hold parliamentary and then presidential elections before the end of the year. But the electoral rules and the balance of power between president and parliament have yet to be decided. ElBaradei has confirmed he is running for the presidency but seems baffled by the situation he finds himself in. “How can you run for president if you don’t know the job description?” he asks, half-smiling, half-shrugging.

I ask why the military are in such a hurry. “I’ve no idea. I think they have a political hot potato and they just want to get rid of it.” But the atmosphere of uncertainty and a sharp  deterioration in the economy  is leading to a general feeling of insecurity. “People are buying guns to protect themselves”, says ElBaradei, grimacing. He also fears that the move to early elections will be bad for the liberal groups that drove the Egyptian revolution forward. “It will give an advantage to the most organized groups, which is, basically, the Muslim Brotherhood.”

I pull a face at the mention of a group that wants to turn Egypt into an Islamic state but ElBaradei says, “I’m not worried so much about the Muslim Brothers as about the  Salafis,” referring to ultra-fundamentalist, Saudi-influenced, Islamist groups, many of whom are now organizing political parties. “Some of them, well, there is no common ground with them. They want a completely theocratic state. One of their spokesmen said the other day that democracy is against Islam, and the ultimate authority should be the Koran as, of course, interpreted by him.” So how powerful are the Salifis? “That is something I don’t know … I’m told they have a lot of influence over the illiterates.” This is not a particularly comforting thought since, as ElBaradei points out, one-third of Egypt’s population of 80m is illiterate.

Reaching fundamentalists, peasants and the urban poor will clearly be a challenge for an intellectual who has spent most of the past 30 years living abroad. Sipping his Diet Coke, ElBaradei is frank about his lack of experience. “I’m used to politics at an international level: people put together an argument and, even if you vehemently disagree with them, well, you can recognize it’s an argument and respond … But here it’s often more about emotions than reason.”

As we talk, an elderly woman in a headscarf comes over to the table and greets him warmly. She is a political supporter, not a friend, and ElBaradei chats and thanks her for her support. Most politicians are buoyed by this sort of thing but, as the woman walks away, the air seems to go out of ElBaradei. He briefly buries his face in his hands. I ask whether he gets approached by strangers a lot. “It is a problem I have right now,” he says wearily. “It’s particularly bad in airports, you have to pose for maybe 50 photos. My daughter is sarcastic and says, ‘That’s the price you pay for becoming a celeb.’ “

ElBaradei’s English is so fluent and colloquial that I ask him whether he now thinks in Arabic or English. He pauses and smiles, perhaps sensing a political trap. But then he gives a straight answer anyway. “I used to think in English when I was working at the agency because most of my work was in English. But now, if I do an interview, I have to think in Arabic, you can’t be translating in your head all the time.”

I cannot help liking ElBaradei for his modesty and decency but, as he speaks, I begin to worry that he may not have the stomach for the fight. Then I recall that he has displayed exemplary toughness in previous jobs. I ask him what was harder – facing up to the anger of the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war or the challenges he faces now? He thinks for a long time before saying, “In hindsight, the Iraq situation was much easier because there are rules of the game: I have my team, I have my infrastructure behind me, there is a legal process and I know that, whatever the pressures, if I just stick to the facts, I’ll be OK.”

There was another advantage: “I wasn’t worried about being killed. All I was exposed to was character assassination.”

There is no doubt ElBaradei has courage. He could easily have retired comfortably after his stint at the IAEA and taken up lucrative positions as an international grandee. He did not have to take up the cudgels against the Mubarak government. Because ElBaradei was one of the few prominent Egyptians to speak out against the president, he was hailed as a hero and a savior by many liberals. Now some of the same people are frustrated by their erstwhile champion’s failure to get more stuck into the rough-and-tumble of Egyptian politics. They complain that ElBaradei lacks the popular touch and that, after many years out of the country, his Arabic is correct but lifeless.

I put these complaints to ElBaradei. “Probably true,” he replies. “There is a tradition here of speaking in a flowery way and of banging the table. I won’t do that, I speak in a cerebral way and I won’t change that. Even my body language is probably a bit different. I don’t use many gestures.”

In this, ElBaradei presents a strong contrast to the man regarded as his main rival for the presidency,  Amr Moussa, a 74-year-old former Egyptian foreign minister who now heads the Arab League, a regional forum representing 22 nations. Moussa has much more of the swagger and suaveness of a traditional Arab leader. He also has a populist touch and has recently announced that he wants to double Egypt’s meager minimum wage. Though there is little doubt of ElBaradei’s personal commitment to the poor – he gave all the prize money from his Nobel award to orphanages in Cairo – when I ask him what he thinks of the idea of doubling the minimum wage, he refuses to match Moussa’s promise. “You have to see first how much money you have,” he replies. It is the only responsible answer, given that Egypt is running a budget deficit of 12 per cent of gross domestic product, but I wonder how it will go over in an election campaign.

ElBaradei is as aware of Egypt’s growing cultural conservatism as he is of its poverty. With regret, he says, “When I went to Cairo University in the 1960s, there was not a single woman with a headscarf; right now I’m told it’s, maybe, 80 per cent. The country has become a lot more conservative.”

ElBaradei’s liberal tolerance means he has many fans in the west but his role in the run-up to the Iraq war, his reluctance to say that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, and his criticism of Israel, have also excited anger in conservative circles. So I ask him about the hot foreign-policy issue of the moment: NATO’s intervention in neighboring Libya. Rather to my surprise, he is unequivocally in favor: “We as a human family cannot stand by and see people slaughtered.” In fact, his position seems to be rather more hardline than that of Nato itself, since he appears to favor using ground troops. “Unless you put boots on the ground, this could drag on for a long time,” he warns.

We have been talking for two hours, so I wave to a waiter and make the universal gesture that is meant to signal that I want the bill.

As I settle up, I ask a final question in as cheery a voice as I can muster. So, if I return in a year, will it be President ElBaradei? “It’s entirely possible,” he replies. As a slogan, this strikes me as lacking some of the vigor and certainty of “Yes, we can.” To be fair, ElBaradei makes clear that much of his uncertainty stems from the legal and constitutional mess created by the ruling military council. He seems uncertain that presidential elections will even take place on schedule.

It is, indeed, “entirely possible” ElBaradei will make it to the presidency. He is helped by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood says it will not field a candidate. He can count on solid support from Egypt’s secularists and much of its new middle class. He will also attract backing from Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of the population and who regard ElBaradei as a supporter of minority rights. Though Amr Moussa is a strong rival, he has his vulnerabilities, in particular an association with the Mubarak regime.

We say goodbye and ElBaradei walks across the lawn, shaking hands with other guests as he goes. Eventually he leaves the country club and goes out into the noise, dust, disorder and danger of modern Egypt.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.