By Khaled Diab
Can Mohamed ElBaradei’s campaign for the Egyptian presidency save a country close to political meltdown?
Monday 15 March 2010
Mohamed ElBaradei is no stranger to explosive – even nuclear – situations. As head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he managed, using his legal and diplomatic expertise, to diffuse tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme between the bomb-ho George Bush in Washington and the hot-headed radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran. His astute diplomacy even earned him the Nobel peace prize in 2005.
Now, having given up the helm of the IAEA, he is being propelled forward by an unexpected and spontaneous wave of popular support that is breathing new life into Egypt’s staid political landscape. In an unprecedented contrast to the typical, top-down politics of Egypt’s ruling and mainstream opposition parties, ElBaradei has been persuaded, through grassroots activism, to come home and launch a campaign to clean up the country’s radioactive political decay after nearly three decades of toxic rule by the Hosni Mubarak regime.
His return to Egypt has felt more like a state visit by a world leader than the coming home of a senior international diplomat. At the airport, he was treated to a hero’s welcome, with jubilant supporters cheering him on, as if he had already been elected president. The crowd included ordinary Egyptians from across the country, as well as opposition figures, actors and novelists.
And if ElBaradei is allowed to run in the 2011 elections and manages to win – two very big ‘ifs’ indeed – he will be Egypt’s first ever democratically elected leader, four presidents and almost 60 years after the 1952 revolution promised to bring democracy and freedom to Egyptians.
But for the time being, this accidental hero of Egypt’s profound desire for change is being cautiously daring. His feet had hardly touched the ground when he was elevated by Egypt’s diverse and broad-based anti-Mubarak movement to head a coalition for political change, the establishment of which he had reportedly wanted to put off for a few months. Its mission is to lobby the government to make the constitution more democratic and to promote social justice. ElBaradei has even indicated his willingness to enter the presidential race but only if he can run as an independent candidate and if free and fair elections can be guaranteed.
His potential candidacy is a sad condemnation of the Egyptian regime’s unspoken policy of stifling meaningful opposition and engineering the political landscape so that Mubarak appears to be the only show in town. In addition, ElBaradei’s meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the opposition movement is a reflection of the disarray of opposition parties and their failure to tap into popular discontent and mobilise the population to take effective action.
But how has a lawyer from a family of distinguished lawyers, who is not a career politician and who has worked outside Egypt for decades, become the face of reform in Egypt?
Part of the reason is his international standing, which has earned him a great deal of respect and admiration at home. More profoundly, it is a sign of the ageing Mubarak’s failing grip on power, popular frustration at the rotten state of Egyptian politics, socio-economic inequality and widespread opposition to the idea of Gamal Mubarak inheriting the presidency (with a little behind-the-scenes help from his father). This desperation is reflected in the names of grassroots opposition efforts, such as Kifaya (Enough), the Egyptian Campaign against Inheritance of Power, and in the increasingly popular refrain: “Anything but Mubarak”.
The decision to rally around ElBaradei is born of the realisation by activists and the opposition – with the notable exception of the Muslim Brotherhood – that they lacked a charismatic figure to represent people of all classes and political stripes. They are also gambling that ElBaradei’s international standing will protect him from the wrath of the regime and spare him the fate of the previous challenger to Mubarak’s hegemony, Ayman Nour.
So far, the regime has been doing its best to ignore the new pretender’s return and downplay the extent of Baradei Fever. As one blogger put it: “I’m going to enjoy sitting back and watching how the Mubaraks deal with this wildcard.”
But what are ElBaradei’s chances? Many experts are doubtful that ElBaradei will be able run as an independent candidate and time is running out for him to attach himself to a political party. Moreover, joining a party would rob him of his unifying appeal. Amr Hashim Rabie of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies believes that the best ElBaradei can hope for is to embarrass the regime at home and abroad and to galvanise popular opposition in 2011.
But perhaps it’s too early to write off ElBaradei’s chances. Several months ago, few would’ve suspected the Nobel laureate would be in the situation he’s in today. Besides, we should never underestimate the power of the people, even in a semi-authoritarian regime.
And therein lies ElBaradei’s most powerful weapon. He is a popular figure in Egypt – with over 122,000 members of a Facebook group supporting him in a country where internet penetration is still fairly low. And he understands the power of the people and the need to win their support and backing. A reflection of this savvy is that he wasted no time in meeting the young advocates who first floated the idea of his candidacy and even recorded a Facebook message to them. In recognition of Egypt’s youth bulge and the power of the young to change and innovate, he has also invited young people to become active members of his coalition.
Of course, even if ElBaradei becomes the next president, Egypt will not be magically transformed into a prosperous democracy. That, as I pointed out in my vision for a democratic Egypt, will take generations of concerted effort. Encouragingly, many of his aspirations correspond with other reform-minded Egyptians’ views – and he has indicated that he would not seek re-election if he failed to deliver results. I would go one step further and urge him only to seek a single term in office during which he can democratise the country’s institutions and then hand over the baton to new generations of elected leaders.