WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei put pressure on the United States on Sunday to support calls for President Hosni Mubarak to step down, saying “life support to the dictator” must end.
In a series of interviews with U.S. television networks from Cairo, ElBaradei also said he had a mandate to negotiate a national unity government and would soon reach out to the army, at the heart of power in Egypt for more than a half century.
ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate for his work with the U.N. nuclear agency, said it was only a matter of time before Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for three decades, stepped down. He urged U.S. President Barack Obama to take a stand.
“It is better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, ‘It’s time for you to go,” he told CNN.
ElBaradei, a possible candidate in Egypt’s presidential election this year, dismissed U.S. calls for Mubarak to enact sweeping democratic and economic reforms in response to the protests.
“The American government cannot ask the Egyptian people to believe that a dictator who has been in power for 30 years would be the one to implement democracy. This is a farce,” he told the CBS program “Face the Nation.”
“This first thing which will calm the situation is for Mubarak to leave, and leave with some dignity. Otherwise I fear that things will get bloody. And you (the United States) have to stop the life support to the dictator and root for the people.”
ElBaradei returned to Egypt on Thursday night in the midst of large-scale protests that have left Mubarak clinging to power with the army in the streets. ElBaradei addressed the protesters in Cairo on Sunday.
“I have been authorized — mandated — by the people who organized these demonstrations and many other parties to agree on a national unity government,” ElBaradei told CNN.
“I hope that I should be in touch soon with the army and we need to work together. The army is part of Egypt.”
Obama is performing a delicate balancing act, trying to avoid outright abandoning Mubarak — an important U.S. strategic ally of 30 years — while supporting protesters who seek broader political rights and demand his ouster.
The U.S. response to ElBaradei’s return has so far been muted, perhaps signalling a reluctance to be seen as meddling in a country where Washington has long cast a shadow with annual aid of about $1.5 billion per year.
ElBaradei is a well-known figure in Washington. He had an uneasy relationship with the administration of former President George W. Bush after he disputed the U.S. rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Earlier on Sunday, a leading member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said Egyptian opposition forces had agreed to support ElBaradei to negotiate with the government.
In his U.S. interviews, ElBaradei rejected concerns about extremism within the Muslim Brotherhood, which is popular among the underprivileged, partly because it offers social and economic services in deprived neighbourhoods.
“They are no way extremists. They are no way using violence,” he ABC’s “This Week” program.
“This is what the regime ... sold to the West and to the U.S.: ‘It’s either us, repression or al Qaeda-type Islamists.’”
He also dismissed concerns that radical Islamists were behind the uprising, saying protesters “absolutely have no ideology other than they want to see future hope, a respect for their dignity, and basic needs.”
Some analysts question whether the 68-year-old ElBaradei, whose prominent career was forged chiefly overseas, will have enough influence with Egypt’s armed forces.
ElBaradei said he did not believe the army would “turn on the people,” if ordered. “I think the army is very much on the people’s side,” he said.
Additional reporting by Will Dunham and the Cairo newsroom; Editing by Will Dunham