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ElBaradei: The Opportunity

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The idea of Mubarak's thugs riding into the Cairo demonstrations on camels and brandishing whips against peaceful protesters should be one of the indelible images of 2011. The old world trying in vain to contain what is happening under their feet.

Hosni Mubarak shut down the internet about 10 years too late. When he finally tried to shut it down, too many channels between the man on the street in Egypt and the rest of the world had been opened and in operation for the momentum to be halted. 

Whatever happens next, it's done. He's out. Even if he was successful in clearing the streets by force, it will only come back, and next time it may not be as peaceful.

He shouldn't take it personally. Mubarak is just caught in a wave. And it's a wave that isn't going to abate any time soon.

It's not a wave that started in Tunisia. It started on Facebook.

Globally, people have gone online and they have seen what they don't have. They have experienced access, which is only going to mean that they are going to get harder and harder to control. Pretty hard to keep 'em down on the farm after they've had Facebook friends in 14 countries. 

In finding the power to communicate, they seem to have also had one very big realization, one that we may not like to admit -- that no one ever said that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were the rights of Americans. Even Mr. Jefferson said these were the rights of man, not the rights of US citizens. And just as those rights and inherent freedoms sound true to us, they sound true to Egyptians. And Tunisians. Jordanians. And a whole lot of other young people online right now. 

Just try to put that genie back in the bottle. It's going to take a lot more than horses and camels. It would take winding the clock backward.

Even the fight against extremism is moving onto a new playing field. It could be in our favor. Contrary to Mubarak's spin, the Egyptians in the square in Cairo are a serious force for freedom. They don't seem so apt to let themselves be put under Sharia law anytime soon. 

Where does this leave the US? "We believe the Mubarak regime is stable" looked clueless a week after it was uttered by Secretary Clinton. But it's forgivable. We were all a bit clueless when this thing started. 

What's rising before us now, in the halls of the White House, and I believe in our own homes, is even more important. It is the realization that people KNOW. 

Someone said once that they knew the Soviet Union would fall when they found out people were watching "Dallas" in Russia. Well today they're watching a lot more than Dallas, and it's way beyond Russia. And they're not just watching. They're talking. 

If we really want this momentum to work in favor of democracy, we had better wake up to the fact that, around the world, they know what we -- the ones who are supposed to be the shining example of democracy -- are doing in Egypt, minute to minute. The guy selling tea on the corner in Cairo knows. So does the woman in Jordan. And the teenager in Indonesia. The Cluetrain Manifesto has gone global. 

They also know that we sold off their rights along the way by propping up oppressive regimes to protect our own corporate and geopolitical interests.

If we stand back and let Mubarak's thugs injure these protesters and burn the country's antiquities, without leveraging every possible ounce of pressure we can against Mubarak, starting with immediately withdrawing aid, they will know it. And they will never forget it.

We have a stroke of luck here with Egypt. We have a chance to get on the right side of history on this one, by finding a way to throw some weight behind Mohamed ElBaradei. The Nobel Peace Prize winner in the middle of the crowd. With the megaphone.

I interviewed El Baradei for TheCommunity.com last August, on Egypt, Iran, and the Muslim world. I encourage you to read it, or reread it, for some insight on this central figure. 

This is a sane man. He is not just an Egyptian and a Muslim, he has operated with and in the West, and successfully -- he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as the head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. He is a moderate and a diplomat. 

He understands the US, the good and the bad. He taught international law at New York University. He led the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, who determined before the US invasion that there were no weapons of mass destruction. He told the UN Security Council that the documents showing that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium from Niger were fakes. In response, the Bush administration tapped his phone and tried unsuccessfully to push him out of the IAEA. He came away from the IAEA and back to Egypt with a broad, informed view, having been immersed in diplomacy for 12 years at IAEA.

At the time of our interview, he talked about what was brewing at home. "The Middle East," he said, "is in a state of disconnect with the rest of the world right now. The people are living with mistrust and anger as they feel they are treated with double standards by the West, and at the same time marginalized or repressed by their own governments."

Little did we know the strength of what he was looking at.

His solutions are broad, but in line with the growing momentum:

We have to decide, if we are going to have a security system based on Euro-Atlantic interests, or on global solidarity. A system based on the global interest of the human family is the only way to go. Unless you grant everyone the same rights and freedoms, you cannot talk peace. You can only talk who has the biggest club. And the biggest club is a nuclear weapon.

ElBaradei has the traits of the best of the Nobel Laureates. He believes in the common man. He believes that people are good. He's an optimist. Empowered, he could change the conversation not just in Egypt, but in the entire Middle East. 

We will be doing well if these events turn in his direction, if the protest survives long enough for him to be brought in to start structuring the new Egyptian government. No he is not someone who will be in our back pocket. But he is someone we could legitimately partner with and support to usher in a new day of democracy in the the country. He can communicate with the man on the street. Not just in Egypt, but across the Muslim world.

How to do it is a question to be answered in Washington, D.C. But if the twists and turns of events in Cairo favor it, there's a window here, a chance.

He is the one to watch.