ElBaradei gains momentum in Egypt

He’s not yet declared presidential candidacy, but state media is already critical.

March 5, 2010 06:02
Egyptian supporters surround ElBaradei as he arriv

ElBaradei Cairo 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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With 160,485 members (and counting) in the “Mohamed ElBaradei 2011” Facebook group, the ex-head of the International Atomic Energy Agency is now one of the most popular figures in Egypt.

Since December, when he first hinted he might take part in next year’s presidential elections, Egypt has been consumed by ElBaradei fever. When he flew home on February 19, hundreds of enthusiastic youth were waiting for him at Cairo airport, while hundreds of thousands of others have tried to follow every detail of his actions and plans.

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This is not an easy thing to do, as the government-run press has almost ignored his presence in the country. The reports in Al-Ahram and Al-Gumhuria have been mostly short and dry, and media reactions to his press conference in Cairo last week, during which he outlined conditions for his candidacy, were trenchant and acid-tongued.

In fact, relations between ElBaradei and the governmental press soured immediately after he first started calling for democratic reforms in the country. ElBaradei has been portrayed as ill-informed, mediocre and a foreigner out of touch with the “real” Egypt.

Osama Soraya, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram – a newspaper that serves as a mouthpiece for President Hosni Mubarak – once labeled his entire one-man reform campaign “tantamount to a constitutional coup.”

ElBaradei supporters are undeterred. “Mubarak’s henchmen have so far done a laughable job of dealing with this unwelcome surprise,” wrote Bahiyya, a popular Egyptian blogger, recently. “His arrival on the scene a full year-and-a-half before presidential elections has caught them off guard; they hadn’t yet devised their strategy for 2011 elections. So they’ve been scrambling to respond, dispatching pathetic regime hacks to sling cheap shots at ElBaradei that only make him more popular.”

Although Egyptians, until recently, didn’t know much about ElBaradei apart from his official biography, he is viewed having a proven international record and experience – and more importantly, a squeaky-clean reputation, devoid of corruption scandals and election fraud.

As Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswani put it in a February 16 article, published in the newspaper Al-Shorouk, “In a truly unique phenomenon, enthusiasm in support of ElBaradei has been intense among young people... They started to collect official and unofficial endorsements for ElBaradei and for changing the constitution, something unprecedented in Egypt since the uprising of 1919.

“In the eyes of Egyptians, ElBaradei is thought to be effective and honorable... [He] has not dirtied his hands with corruption [or] participated in electoral irregularities, did not keep his mouth shut when innocents were arrested and tortured, wasn’t a yes-man for President Mubarak, and doesn’t sing about his historical achievements like today’s hypocritical ministers. For all of these reasons, ElBaradei is appreciated across Egypt’s political spectrum, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the leftists to the liberals and even the expat Copts.”

The day after Aswani’s article went up, it was republished on the Muslim Brotherhood Web site.

The politician also enjoys a reputation of having been at odds with the regime in the past, since officially Cairo refused to nominate ElBaradei for the position of IAEA chief (the official Egyptian candidate was Muhammad Shakur), even though he was nominated by African and European countries. His father was a famous lawyer who clashed with the regime many times during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s era.

Finally, ElBaradei is an internationally known and respected public figure – a fact that, according to some of his supporters, might provide him some immunity when dealing with the regime.

Egyptians, in short, are ready to give ElBaradei all the credit in the world, feeding on the hope of a competent and powerful candidate who, at the very least, will challenge the regime and reduce the usual predictability of presidential elections.

“What elections? There are no elections – and no parties, either – in Egypt; there is only one man, who is in charge of everything and everyone,” Amin al-Mahdi, an Egyptian political writer, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, indicating that the ruling National Democratic Party was no more than a tool that executed the president’s will and that the outcome of the elections was always well-known in advance.

How would ElBaradei fit into this equation?

First of all, according to Mahdi, to become a candidate without party affiliations (until now, ElBaradei has only announced the foundation of a movement he has described as a non-party), he would have to secure the backing of 250 representatives in both houses of parliament and local councils – all of which are firmly controlled by Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, as per a constitutional amendment passed by national referendum in 2005.

Naturally, this demand complicates the matter for any outsider, no matter how popular he is.

For now, the leaders of NDP have expressed strong opposition to ElBaradei’s demand to declare that amendment null and void.

Interestingly, the man who already has an unofficial group called “ElBaradei for presidency” on the Web has not actually made a formal statement on whether he will be running. Talking to journalists in Cairo on February 27, ElBaradei said his first priority was changing Egypt into a democratic system and achieving reforms in the country’s political system.

“Whether I would run or not... is a tertiary issue, in fact. And... as I said, I would only run if people coalesce around me and think that they want me to run as president.

“Whether I’ll make a good president or not? This remains to be seen, if I run and if people should judge [based] on performance,” he said.

If registered as a candidate, ElBaradei would have to compete with a very powerful and mighty rival: Mubarak, whom the NDP has nominated as its official candidate. In mid-January, Mustafa al-Fiqi, a powerful figure in the NDP, indicated that if the president were unable to participate in the elections, his son Gamal Mubarak might take his place.

Many Egyptians strongly oppose the idea of successive power and demand free and transparent elections.

It is unclear whether ElBaradei will challenge the system and become an Egyptian Andrei Sakharov, but even those Egyptians who are skeptical about his chances say he has already has proved to be a breath of fresh air in the stale atmosphere of Egyptian politics.

And, as ElBaradei’s Web site points out, there are still 555 days left until the elections, in which anything can happen.

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