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Gilbert Achcar: Youth organizations emerging as new leadership in Egyptian democratic movement

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. In Egypt, the leadership of the opposition, some of which is negotiating with [Omar] Suleiman, the vice president; other parts of the leadership are saying they will not negotiate until Mubarak steps down–that includes Mohamed ElBaradei, who’s saying no negotiations until there’s no Mubarak. And there’s a lot of debate and discussion going on in the main square. Apparently, yesterday 150 or 200 young people in the square sat down and said, we’re not talking to the foreign media anymore, we’re going to talk to each other, and started a debate about where they’re at and where they should go. And there’s clearly a lot of confusion about that. Now joining us to discuss who’s leading this movement is Gilbert Achcar. Gilbert is a professor of development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, England. He’s the author of the book The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. Thanks for joining us again, Gilbert.


JAY: So talk about–why don’t we start with ElBaradei? ‘Cause everyone saw him as potentially this unifying figure, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. What do you make of who he is and what role he might play? I think ElBaradei announced he won’t run in any elections for president, that he wants to be seen as someone that can help in the transitional phase. But what do you make of him?

ACHCAR: Well, Baradei, I mean, after ending his last mandate at the International Atomic Energy Agency, well, thought that he might get into Egyptian politics and become a kind of alternative to the existing Mubarak regime. And so he thought that his prestige after his years at the head of the atomic agency and the Nobel prize that he got and all that, the fact that he became very well known in Egypt, of course, as a famous Egyptian, a world famous Egyptian, would give him some chance of playing a role. And he was also, I think, convinced–and I don’t know if there were, you know, behind the scenes any kind of wheeling and dealing between himself and Washington, but he thought that he might be, you know, a challenger of Mubarak and a more credible figure for–with more legitimate kind of government.

JAY: Now, ElBaradei showed some real backbone. He stood up to the US on–during Iraq, he–as head of the atomic agency, he says there’s no nuclear program in Iraq at a time Bush and his cohorts were saying there was. He stood up to them, pretty much, on Iran. He never went along with the idea that the Iranians had a nuclear weapons program, and he used some very strong language against any kind of military attack on Iran. So he seems to have some backbone under pressure.

ACHCAR: No, he–I mean, he has a certain degree of honesty, which I think is undisputed. And this is not some kind of Machiavellian person. Mohamed ElBaradei is not that kind of person. There’s something genuine about his beliefs. I mean, he’s a liberal. He’s not a radical. He is not–. But seen from Washington, this is–he doesn’t represent any threat. I mean, Mubarak also was, for instance, quite critical about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mubarak did not support the US invasion of Iraq, and that was even worse as an attitude than whatever Baradei took as a position. So–but that’s–that isn’t the big problem. The United States, I mean, knew that this invasion of Iraq anyhow was not popular. And the same goes for a war against Iran. It is something that not everybody, I mean, even among the friends of the United States, including the European partners of the United States, not everybody believes that this would be a good idea. And, actually, United States itself is not absolutely convinced. The only people who are very much enthused about an idea of military action against Iran are Israel, and we know that when the Israelis asked the [inaudible] Bush administration for a green light during the last month after that [inaudible] of the Bush administration to attack Iran, they didn’t get it. So that’s not a big deal here. Baradei is not seen as, you know, some kind of radical or anything like that.

JAY: But the Israelis must really not like the idea of ElBaradei playing such a role. He’s on the record of saying he’s against the siege of Gaza. I mean, from the Israeli point of view, they would far, far prefer Suleiman or someone else to ElBaradei, would they not?

ACHCAR: Of course, of course. They would prefer the same kind of people to remain at the head of the Egyptian–.

JAY: In fact, they want to keep Mubarak, if they could.

ACHCAR: Yes, but–or Suleiman is absolutely fine for them. But they wouldn’t have a major problem with Baradei, all the more that he just making statements that the Egyptian-Israeli treaty would not be affected, that it is rock solid, and such statements. So he is not perceived as anything of a threat by anybody. And at the same time, he has this image of a relatively honest liberal person in Egypt, which explains why a wide range of opposition forces [are] supporting him as, you know, a figurehead against Mubarak, because other than Baradei, I mean, if I asked you, can you name a person of the Egyptian opposition, you would have difficulty finding any name because there are no prominent figure. Of course, the Egyptians would say there are some–Ayman Nour, Hamdeen Sabahy, etc.–but they are hardly known outside of Egypt, and even in Egypt they don’t command real mass popularity. So Baradei, with his international prestige and all that, was thought to be a good candidate for the opposition. That’s why a lot of opposition forces, including, after some hesitation, even the Muslim Brotherhood, joined in this idea that, okay, let’s back him, at least as a transition figure. He is no threat even to us, because he doesn’t have a constituency of his own. He can’t and he’s not the kind of person who might be tempted in turning into another dictator. He’s not the stuff that dictators are made of usually, or at least he doesn’t look to be that kind of stuff.

JAY: Right. Now, what other leadership is emerging over the course of this, amongst the young people or amongst workers organizations and unions? What other leadership is either there or seems to be coming into being?

ACHCAR: Well, in this movement, young people have played a tremendously important role. And in Tahrir Square and everything, everywhere in the movement, in other cities, I mean, and [inaudible] the young people, youth movement, is playing a very, very central, very important role, organizations like the April 6 Youth Movement, which was founded in 2008 in–and originally [inaudible] solidarity with the huge wave of workers strikes that was happening at the time. This movement has been instrumental, actually, in initiating the present protests in Egypt and are still playing a major role. And other movements are there. And they have recently formed a coordination committee in Tahrir Square of what they call the Wrath–the Revolution of Wrath, and they have this kind of, you know, representative committee of various sectors of the young people involved in the movement. And they are exerting a real pressure, which is felt in and translated in the way the other forces of the opposition, those who went into these negotiations with Suleiman, including the Muslim Brotherhood, were not in a comfortable position, and they had to, you know, multiply statements to the tune of saying, well, nothing can be done without the Shabab–the Shabab means the young people. And this formula has been very much repeated. It’s a testimony to the weight and importance of these young people in the mobilization. And, I mean, that’s the–probably the most striking development on the political scene in Egypt.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the history of the military and the history of this regime and how it becomes a military dictatorship. So please join us on The Real News Network.

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Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, and is currently Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published in 13 languages, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and most recently the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.