ElBaradei stumbles in early leadership test

Opposition taps Nobel laureate as unifying figure, but ordinary Egyptians are doubtful of his qualifications.

February 2, 2011 21:18
Mohamed ElBaradei speaking in Cairo's Tahrir Sq.

Mohamed ElBaradei speaking bullhorn 311 AP. (photo credit: AP)

It could have been a historic occasion. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate who had just been anointed leader of the coalition trying to bring down Egypt’s government, arrived on Sunday night to address thousands of demonstrators at the epicenter of the rebellion, Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Surrounded by news cameras, he began speaking. “Change is coming in the next few days. You have taken back your rights and what we have begun cannot go back," he said as crowds chanted "Down with Mubarak." But with no stage to speak from and no public address system, ElBaradei was quickly overwhelmed by the chaos around him. He quickly cut short his remarks and left.

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As mass protests across Egypt enter their second week, ElBaradei has been tapped by Egyptian opposition groups including the banned Muslim Brotherhood to negotiate with President Hosni Mubarak, casting him as much as anyone in the otherwise disorganized opposition as leader. ElBaradei has made clear he welcomes the role and sees bigger things ahead for himself if the Mubarak government is brought down, as protestors are hoping.

"If [the people] want me to lead the transition, I will not let them down,” ElBaradei said last week after he arrived in Cairo from Europe.

ElBaradei, 69, is favored by Western media as a voice of moderation, democracy and secularism - a candidate acceptable even to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been playing an increasingly large role in the protests. But among ordinary Egyptians, few see him as the person destined to lead the country.

"I don't see ElBaradei as a leader at all. He wasn't there when the protests began, and took no risk," Dalia Ziada, a social activist, blogger and head of the North Africa bureau of the American Islamic Congress based in Cairo, told The Media Line.  "He never participated in politics; he was only a United Nations employee."

The protests in Egypt until now have been mostly a spontaneous affair, sparked the by success of the Tunisian street in forcing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile earlier this month. The absence of a single leader has done little to deter demonstrators from defying the police and army, with Tahrir Square drawing hundreds of thousands on Tuesday for the declared “million man march.”

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But if the opposition gets its wish and Mubarak opens negotiations or steps down, someone will have to play leader. The monopoly Mubarak and his National Democratic Party has had over political life in Egypt for three decades leaves few people naturally positioned for the talks.

ElBaradei comes with some excellent credentials. In his 12 years as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based watchdog monitoring nuclear proliferation, he publicly clashed with the U.S. over how hard to come down on suspected Iranian violations and on the American-led invasion of Iraq. He was also tough on Israel, publicly accusing the Jewish state of violating international law in its alleged attack of a Syrian nuclear facility. After stepping down from the IAEA in 2009, he positioned himself as a stern opponent of the Mubarak regime.

“He spent most of his life in UN organizations,” Ephraim Asculai, who worked at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and was in charge of external relations during ElBaradei’s term at IAEA, told Israel’s Ynet news site on Monday. “He’s a very impressive person, no doubt about it. I wouldn’t say he was a great friend of Israel. He isn’t extreme, but he certainly didn’t relate to us particularly warmly over the years.”

But ElBaradei’s career works against him as well. He has been outside Egypt most of his adult life, working as a diplomat and global bureaucrat whose life is far removed from the experience of ordinary Egyptians.

Born in Cairo in 1942 to a well-connected family, his father was president of the Egyptian Bar Association. He began his career in the Egyptian foreign service in 1964. In 1980 he left to join the UN, becoming a senior fellow in charge of the international law program at the UN Institute for Training and Research and later served as an adjunct professor of international law at the New York University. He became director of the IAEA in 1997.

”He’s not particularly a unifying force among the opposition and protestors,” Maye Kassem, associate professor of political science at American University of Cairo, told The Media Line. “He’s very attractive to a small group of intellectuals, but on the whole he’s certainly not a unifying force. There’s really is no leader who is unifying force right now.”

After his return to Egypt in 2009, he came under criticism from many Egyptians for spending more time outside the country on official visits and failed to exploit the opportunity of last November’s parliamentary elections to unite the opposition parties. When ElBaradei arrived last week at Cairo airport from Vienna, he was greeted by a crowd of journalists rather than throngs of supporters.

Kassem said more promising candidates to lead the opposition include Ayman Abd Al- Aziz Nour, who served time in prison in 2005 after he was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and charged with fraud. As head of the Tomorrow Party, later that year he mounted a quixotic challenge to Mubarak in the rigged presidential elections.

"People know he’s been in prison and he competed in the presidential elections. He’s a self-made man who people can relate to,” Kassem said. “The more neutral an individual is the more stable the country will be – this will be acceptable to everybody – not just to the Western-orientated, not to Islam-orientated and not to the nationalist-orientated.”

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