Egypt is hungry for change: Ex-UN Nuke chief

CAIRO: The ex-U.N. nuclear chief who has emerged as an opposition leader in Egypt urged the government Saturday to respond to peaceful demands for change, cautioning it could face a popular uprising if it doesn't.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who returned to Cairo a week ago to a hero's welcome by supporters who see him as a possible rival to President Hosni Mubarak in next year's elections, told The Associated Press that he hopes to create a peaceful public movement pressing for electoral reforms.

"You have seen how much support I got even before I set foot in Egypt," said in an interview in the garden of his home on the outskirts of Cairo. "It shows that people are ready, I would say even hungry for change. But this is still something that has to take roots and has to spread to different parts of the country."

When asked if Egypt's government could face protests like those that broke out in Iran, he said he hopes to avoid that but it was ultimately up to the ruling system.

"It is inevitable that change will come to Egypt. What I'm trying to do is pre-empt a point of clash between the government and the people," he said.

"I hope the government will understand that you don't want for people to reach a point of desperation," he added. "What I am preaching right now, if you like, is peaceful change by everybody. If the government subscribes to that, I think all the better."

ElBaradei, 67, was coy about whether he plans to run in the 2011 presidential vote, saying that was not his primary goal. Instead, he said his main focus is drumming up support for his efforts to promote change and rallying the public as well as fellow opposition leaders behind his campaign.

He said it will be a long term process that requires educating people about basic rights and freedoms.

"My primary goal is to create the condition for a truly democractic political system," he said.

Existing restrictions make it practically impossible for independents to run, meaning that ElBaradei's chances are dim without long-sought constitutional amendments. But his supporters see the former Egyptian diplomat as the most credible opposition leader to emerge in a U.S.-allied country ruled for nearly three decades by Mubarak.

ElBaradei, who has begun forming a coalition with other opposition leaders, said he plans to launch up a Web site to collect signatures from the public with a list of demands to present to the government.

Hassan Nafaa, the coordinator for the new group, said the demands included changing the constitution to enable independents and new party candidates to run in the presidential election and lifting emergency laws that have been in force for nearly three decades. The petition is the first phase, and protests are another option being considered by the group, Nafaa said.

ElBaradei — who won the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize and left his Vienna-based post as director general International Atomic Energy Agency late last year — said he hopes his movement will have a snowball effect.

"There is nothing more powerful than an idea that people believe in... The only power I have is the power of argument, the power of ideas," he said.

Opposition movements have failed to gain momentum in the past as the regime — backed by long-standing emergency laws — frequently jails journalists, pro-reform activists and political opponents.

Established opposition groups also have been weakened by an aging leadership and lack of a popular base.

Supporters hope that ElBaradei, a civilian with international stature and untouched by corruption tainting the Egyptian system, will be able to seize the momentum and build a following to force the government to change.

Since his return, ElBaradei has met various groups at his house. He met with youth representatives who initiated a petition calling on him to run for presidency. Over 100,000 people have joined a Facebook group supporting his candidacy.

ElBaradei said it will be a challenge to galvanize and maintain the momentum for change. "I have a lot of confidence in the people."

He also met with women representatives and the Arab League's Secretary General Amr Moussa at his office, whose name was also floated by reformists looking for a possible rival to Mubarak.

Since taking office in 1981, Mubarak has not named a successor and never had a vice president but he is believed to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him. The initial constitutional amendments were seen as paving the way for father to son succession.