Last Updated: Wed Feb 02, 2011 07:05 am (KSA) 04:05 am (GMT)

US ambassador talks to Egypt’s Elbaradei

Egypt's pro-democracy leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, is greeted by a young supporter before Friday prayers in Cairo  
Egypt's pro-democracy leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, is greeted by a young supporter before Friday prayers in Cairo

The U.S. ambassador to Egypt spoke to the country's top dissident Mohamed ElBaradei Tuesday as mass protests built in Cairo, in another apparent sign Washington is looking to the post-Mubarak era.

Ambassador Margaret Scobey spoke to the former globe-trotting diplomat for the first time since he flew back to Egypt as public unrest and demonstrations mounted against the 30-year strongman rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

Scobey's conversation with ElBaradei, who has become the leading public critic of the Mubarak government, came as part of her outreach to various opposition groups, a U.S. official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

US does not dictate

The official said she delivered a similar message to ElBaradei on the crisis that U.S. officials have made clear in public: namely that Washington wants a political transition but will not seek to dictate Egypt's political future.

The U.S. ambassador's conversation with ElBaradei came a day after Washington said it sent a veteran former U.S. diplomat and envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner, to meet top Egyptian officials and report back on the situation.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Wisner would meet Mubarak directly, as President Barack Obama's administration believed it would be "useful" to get the president's perspective.

The daily said officials would not say whether Wisner would be urging Mubarak to leave office or bringing a specific message from the United States.

But one senior official told the paper, "When you have old friends get together, it's a two-way conversation."

On Monday, Washington has shied away from billing Wisner as an American "envoy." But on Tuesday morning the State Department confirmed the Obama administration had asked him to go.

Scobey's move also coincided with the strongest show of support yet from anti-government protesters in Egypt, as massive crowds flooded Cairo and Egypt's second city Alexandria, pouring relentless pressure on Mubarak to quit.

On Sunday, ElBaradei had sharp criticism for the carefully calibrated U.S. stance on the protests rocking a government which has been a stalwart US ally for decades and at the center of its Middle East diplomacy.

"You are losing credibility by the day. On one hand you're talking about democracy, rule of law and human rights, and on the other hand you're lending still your support to a dictator that continues to oppress his people," ElBaradei told CBS from Cairo.

The United States has warned the Egyptian government not to use force against demonstrators and stressed their right to express their universal aspirations for freedom of expression.

Elbaradei on Mubarak

Embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should be allowed to stand down without fear of prosecution, top dissident ElBaradei told a Al Arabiya television channel on Tuesday.

ElBaradei added that Mubarak must leave the country before any dialogue can start between the opposition and the government.

"There can be dialogue but it has to come after the demands of the people are met and the first of those is that President Mubarak leaves," he told Al Arabiya television, saying the dialogue would involve transitional power arrangements and dissolving parliament.

"I hope to see Egypt peaceful and that's going to require as a first step the departure of President Mubarak. If President Mubarak leaves, then everything will progress correctly," he said.

He also added that the Egypt's embattled president should step down by Friday.

Protesters want an end

"What I have heard (from protesters) is that they want this to end, if not today (Tuesday), then by Friday maximum," said ElBaradei, adding that the Egyptians have marked Friday as "departure day."

"I hope President Mubarak goes before this and leaves the country after 30 years of rule... I don't think he wants to see more blood."

As the Nobel peace laureate spoke, Several hundred thousand Egyptians massed in Cairo and Alexandria for the biggest outpouring of anger yet in their drive to oust Mubarak.

Asked about Vice President Omar Suleiman's offer for dialogue with the opposition, ElBaradei said he supports "a national comprehensive dialogue" but not before "the departure of President Mubarak."

"If President Mubarak leaves, everything will go in the right direction," said ElBaradei, who stressed that the demonstrations "should be peaceful."

Suleiman said on Monday that Mubarak had tasked him "with opening immediate talks with the political forces to begin a dialogue around all the issues concerning constitutional and legislative reforms."

Faced with the biggest protests of his presidency, an increasingly embattled Mubarak has appointed his first-ever vice president and a new prime minister in a desperate attempt to hold on to power.

ElBaradei said he was afraid Mubarak "has not understood the lesson and did not get the message which the army has grasped when it (the army) realized the people's demands."

"I hope he will understand this and leave the country (for Egypt) to begin a new era and prevent (further) bloodshed," he said.

From Mubarak's cricles

On the other hand, a prominent Egypt official who kept his identity anonymous told the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Tuesday that the Egyptian president will not leave and there is no suggested scenario to transfer power to the country’s new vice president, the lieutenant Omar Sluieman.

"Mubarak is to say in power as he is the country’s president, and the head of the armed forces,” said the official emphasizing that there is no suggested scenario if he heaves the power.

The official said “how can we forgive a soldier if he leaves his station during a time of battle. Mubarak is a fighter and respects his history in the army and knows the importance of him staying in power.”

He also described the protesters who are still continuing demonstrating for the eight day as "minority" and said that they do not reflect the majority opinion of Egyptians whom they see Mubarak as the security symbol of the country.

Elbaradei out of touch

Far from seeing ElBaradei as the answer to Egypt's problems, the West fears the Nobel laureate is out of touch with the mood on the Arab street after a two decade absence, experts said Tuesday.

The 68-year-old, a former head of the U.N.'s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, has been mandated by Egypt's opposition groups to negotiate with Mubarak amid the current unrest sweeping the country.

But Western diplomats and analysts suggest his lengthy absence from domestic politics means he may not be suitable as anything more than a temporary caretaker of power in the transition currently underway.

"ElBaradei has been out of Egypt for a number of years so he hasn't really been part of Egyptian opposition politics," said an analyst at London-based Exclusive Analysis, Zaineb Al-Assam. "His basis of power is fairly small."

Thomas Hasel, a North Africa analyst from Berlin's Free University, agreed, saying that while ElBaradei had "credibility ... what he lacks is contacts in Egypt. He doesn't know the regime from the inside."

Fellow researcher Firas Abi Ali even suggested there would be some who view ElBaradei as an opportunist.

They "would most likely see him as a Johnny-come-lately who was jumping on the opportunity," Abi Ali said.

"He's not the leader of this movement and he did not instigate these protests."

While trained as a lawyer, ElBaradei has spent most of his working life abroad as diplomat.

He began his U.N. career in 1980, and was sent to Iraq in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war to dismantle Saddam's nuclear program.

In 1997, he was chosen as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a role that made him a household name worldwide over a 12-year period and led to confrontations with Washington, first over Iraq and later over Iran.

He returned to the spotlight last Thursday when he flew back to Egypt, offering himself up as a potential bridge to democracy.

"If my people want me to serve as a bridge from an authoritarian system to a democracy, I will not let them down."

Stooge of Iran?

Analysts say that his time as head of the IAEA, during which he won the Nobel Peace Prize, will certainly lend him clout.

"He's internationally recognised, he's a Nobel Peace Prize laureate," said Amnon Aran, lecturer in international politics in the Middle East, at City University London,

"He would be somebody who would know how to deal with the West."

But ElBaradei's time in Vienna was dogged by controversy, with the United States in particular accusing him of being too soft on Iran and its disputed nuclear programme.

"He is a stooge of Iran, and I don't use the term lightly," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

"He fronted for them, he distorted the reports."

Since the start of the uprising in Egypt, Washington has indeed been cool on ElBaradei who was just "one of many different voices that should be heard during these negotiations with the government," said US State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley.

"We do have broad contacts in Egypt. They include both some within government, a wide range of non-governmental actors, including members of the opposition."

In turn, ElBaradei has been critical of what he sees as Washington's fence-sitting in the current crisis.

For some, ElBaradei's willingness to do business with the banned Muslim Brotherhood is problematic.

He "is no Islamist," said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Nevertheless, "for the West, it's clear it would be a catastrophe if the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt."

"Up until now, ElBaradei has been better known to foreign journalists than to Egyptians," said Denis Bauchard, expert at the French institute for international relations IFRI.

Given the disparate opposition groups in Egypt, he could act as a sort of point man.

But "there is the impression that doesn't enjoy unanimous support. In fact, for some Egyptians, he's seen as an agent for the U.S.," Bauchard said.

A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, saw ElBaradei as "resourceful" and "outspoken". But "in his political discourse, he doesn't really have ideological backbone".

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