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World News

INTERVIEW - Egypt's ElBaradei says youth, Web to help change

CAIRO (Reuters) - Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear agency and a possible Egyptian presidential contender, said on Saturday democratic change depended heavily on young people.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former nuclear watchdog, talks during a Reuters interview at his villa in Cairo February 27, 2010. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

ElBaradei leads a coalition of opposition parties and other activists set up this week to drum up popular support for the overhaul of a political system that has kept President Hosni Mubarak in power for almost three decades.

The most visible support for ElBaradei has been on Facebook and other online groups. One of the biggest sites has more than 130,000 online backers, double the number it had just before ElBaradei arrived back in Egypt on Feb. 19.

“If Egypt were going to change, it is going to change through the young people,” he told Reuters in an interview.

His first aim was to “garner as much visible support, online and by other means, for democratic change,” he said.

ElBaradei, 67, one of Egypt’s best-known international figures after leading the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, stirred up politics by saying he might make a presidential bid in 2011 if a fair vote was guaranteed.

“I would only run if people coalesce around me,” said ElBaradei, who has spent years based abroad.

Speaking at his home on Cairo’s outskirts, he said he could keep up momentum for his call for change “from wherever I am”.

‘SILENT MAJORITY’

Building support on the Web could have a “snowball effect”, he said. His coalition, the National Front for Change, also aimed to drum up support through petitions or other routes among those who do not use the Internet in Egypt, where a fifth of the 78 million people live on less than $1 a day.

“The key is the silent majority of the Egyptians, and if the silent majority subscribes to this National Front. I think that will make a very big difference,” he said.

“I have tried to make the connection between economic and social development and political reform. If you move into a democratic system everything else will fall into place.”

To run, ElBaradei wants guarantees of a fair vote and changes to a constitution that now make make it almost impossible for anyone to put up a realistic challenge without the backing of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.

The chances of securing such changes by 2011 are remote, analysts say.

Mubarak, 81 and in power since 1981, has not said if he will run again but, if he does not, many Egyptians believe he will seek to hand power to his son. Father and son deny this.

Asked about his view on a possible bid by Gamal Mubarak, ElBaradei said: “I believe the current system is not free and fair, and, whoever would run under the current system, I would make it very clear that this is not democracy as it should be.”

Calls for change also gathered momentum around the 2005 presidential vote, amid U.S. pressure for more democracy in the region. Even so, street protests rarely numbered more than a few hundred and the movement fizzled out under heavy-handed security and as Washington’s enthusiasm for political change faded.

Asked if his supporters should take to the streets, ElBaradei said: “People are talking about all sorts of things and they might go to civil disobedience if there is no change.”

Rights groups said the 2005 vote was marred by abuses. The main challenger, Ayman Nour, coming a distant second, was jailed after the vote on forgery charges he said were political. Officials dismissed both sets of accusations.

“It is going to take a long time to switch Egypt into a democracy,” ElBaradei said, adding that many Egyptians had been “intimidated” against speaking out.

He also said it was too soon to outline any political programme should he run for office.

Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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