Lunch with Mohamed ElBaradei: Will the Nobel Peace Prize winner be Egypt's next president?

Stories from the Financial Times. 
April 30 2011 7:14 AM

Lunch With Mohamed ElBaradei

"How can you run for president if you don't know the job description?"

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Mohamed ElBaradei. Click image to expand.
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.

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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.