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Mohamed ElBaradei
Mohamed ElBaradei
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Mohamed ElBaradei Interview

Nobel Prize for Peace

June 3, 2006
Los Angeles, California

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  Mohamed ElBaradei

Before we discuss your present work, we'd like to hear something about your childhood and your parents. What kind of work did they do, and how do you think that influenced your own personal journey?

Mohamed ElBaradei: My father was a lawyer. My mother was a homemaker.

My father was president of the Egyptian Bar Association. He was involved very much during the Nasser era -- which was one of the most repressive eras in Egyptian history -- in fighting for democracy, fighting for human rights, and I think that to a lot of extent shaped my view as to what I wanted to do in the future. I wanted to have a world where people are free to express their views, to have freedom of worship, to have freedom from want, and I saw poverty in Egypt when I grew up. To me, freedom, in the larger sense -- to be able to speak, to worship, free from want, free from fear -- I think it was a key as to what I thought I would like to do when I grow up.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Did you have any siblings?

Mohamed ElBaradei: I had two sisters and two brothers. I was the eldest. So I was sort of a role model for my siblings.

When did you first think about going into law?

Mohamed ElBaradei: It always was on my mind, I think, to be a lawyer. I guess I thought law would give me the opportunity to work as a social engineer, if you like, to try to develop a society that is free, that is at peace with itself. I always wanted to be a lawyer. I'm not sure that I was influenced by my father.

I think I was just influenced by the environment under which I am living. I lived in an upper middle-class community, so I didn't really, personally, have to suffer any of -- at least, you know -- freedom from want or any of that stuff, but there was always fear around. You know, there was always fear around, and I saw that my father at one point was harassed just (for) trying to speak freely, and that actually affected me deeply, and I thought law is the best way for me to influence the shape of the future.

What was he harassed about? What was he trying to say?

Mohamed ElBaradei Interview Photo
Mohamed ElBaradei: During the Nasser time -- the 1960s -- he was calling for multi-party democracy, calling for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and he was harassed. He was harassed by the state authorities in subtle and unsubtle ways.

What kind of unsubtle ways?

Mohamed ElBaradei: Trying to tap our telephone conversations, trying to discourage people from going to him as a lawyer, trying to sort of restrict his practices, lots of what you call "dirty tricks."

Were they effective in suppressing him?

Mohamed ElBaradei: No, they were not. I mean, my father was a very low-key person, very short, very affable person, but he had an iron will, and I don't think it affected him. I think he continued believing in what he believed in. He continued to speak his mind. In my view, he died as a hero.

When was that?

Mohamed ElBaradei: 1977.

So he did not live to see the situation you're in today.

Mohamed ElBaradei: No, he did not. I always hate it, but he did not.

So you had seen an example of the strength and courage to speak out, even though you're being harassed.

Mohamed ElBaradei: Sure. I thought it should not affect you. I think if you have a larger cause to serve, that's much more important than being intimidated by personal harassment.

Tell us a little bit about your school life. Did you like to read? Were there books you particularly remember liking?

Mohamed ElBaradei Interview Photo
Mohamed ElBaradei: I liked to read a lot. My father made available to us all sorts of books in all sorts of languages. He encouraged us to read in English, in French, in Arabic -- literature, sociology, politics. We had a huge library available at home, and he didn't force us to read, but he was the one person I see every night after dinner, picking a book and reading, and listening to classical music. Culture for him, expanding your knowledge, I think was very important.

What books did you particularly like as a kid?

Mohamed ElBaradei: Lots of books. Literature and history, I think were the two areas where I was impressionable. History gave me the sense of perspective, you know, and literature would just allow you to dream.

Any particular authors that come to mind?

Mohamed ElBaradei: Well, many. I think Steinbeck, for example, was one of my favorites, Somerset Maugham, Hemingway. Quite a few.

Do you still read fiction?

Mohamed ElBaradei: Unfortunately, I don't. My wife now reads fiction. I don't have the time to read fiction. My wife reads the fiction and summarizes it to me, but I wish at one point I'll have time again to read fiction. It is a luxury I cannot afford right now.

Because you have too many facts to read about?

Mohamed ElBaradei: There's so many facts to read about. Even more than I can grasp. Absolutely.

How did you come to enter a diplomatic career?

Mohamed ElBaradei: I wanted to be a lawyer in Egypt. I wanted to practice there.

I wanted to be directly involved in my society, where I grew up, but things were just too tough, and I didn't see how I could do much with the policy of socialism which basically gave very little for private practice for a lawyer to be able to work and express himself, and I thought for a while, maybe diplomacy will give me the opportunity to go abroad, to see an alternative lifestyle and see what I can learn. Eventually, I thought I should learn, through diplomacy, through living abroad, and then come back to Egypt and be able to effect change.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Unfortunately, it has been over 30 years while I am going through the journey, but you never plan your life the way you wanted. I know what I want to do, and that's what I'm still doing, but I'm doing it in different ways. I think my vision probably has been enlarged.

My focus when I left Egypt in the '60s was Egypt-centered, but then I went to New York, and I went to do my graduate work in New York, and there, again, I recognized both through my academic studies, through my mentors at university, through living in this melting pot that the world is just bigger than one country, and you are really better off if you have a global picture. If you want to achieve change, you shouldn't focus on one particular people, one particular country, one particular language, but try to look at the global picture and try to integrate humanity, and I think that -- that really now is my passion, and I think by doing this, I am serving every single person in the world by trying to get all of us together.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

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