Respected worldwide, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and for 12 years the leader of the UN nuclear watchdog, Mohammed ElBaradei is positioning himself as a force for change in his homeland.
He has already said he might run for president of Egypt, and now he's forming a coalition to press for free and fair elections in a land ruled for nearly 30 years by President Hosni Mubarak.
ElBaradei, 67, returned to Cairo only days ago to a hero's welcome by supporters who see him as the most credible opposition leader to emerge as this US-allied country prepares for the 2011 presidential vote.
Existing restrictions make it practically impossible for independents to run, meaning that ElBaradei's chances are dim without long-sought constitutional amendments.
The former Egyptian diplomat has been mum about potential plans to join the campaign, saying that he would only do so if guaranteed that elections would be free, fully supervised by the judiciary and monitored by the international community. But he has used the publicity surrounding his visit to push for democratic reform and escalate pressure on a system he has criticized as stale.
Calls for changes to the constitutional amendments — instituted by Mubarak himself in 2005 and 2007 — are not new. The support from ElBaradei, a civilian with international stature and untouched by corruption tainting the Egyptian system, has given the demands a new momentum.
He met with a group of about 30 opposition figures at his home on the outskirts of Cairo late Tuesday.
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Several participants said ElBaradei announced the formation of a national "society" for change to push for constitutional reforms that allow for contested elections.
ElBaradei, who has lived in the West for nearly three decades, has called for restrictions on candidates to be lifted. He also wants the elections to be monitored by international observers, the Egyptian judiciary and an independent civil body, instead of being overseen by the Interior Ministry, which controls Egypt's internal security forces.
George Ishaq, a reform activist who attended the meeting, said the attendees represent the founding committee, but details of the society's goals are being finalized. "We call on all Egyptians to join," he said.
The group was a who's who of the opposition, including leading dissident Ayman Nour who founded the liberal Ghad (Tomorrow) Party and was himself was jailed after running against Mubarak in the 2005 elections.
Osama el-Ghazali Harb, who formed his own party after breaking with Mubarak, said the group differed in ideologies and political inclinations but agreed on its leader.
"The problem for the regime now is that ElBaradei is an international figure with stature and can't be easily stopped," he said.
ElBaradei's vocal criticism of Egypt's ruling system have stirred an unusual political debate about the future of Egypt. Established opposition groups have been weakened by restrictive laws, an aging leadership, and lack of a popular base.
On top of that, the regime — backed by long-standing emergency laws — frequently jails journalists, pro-reform activists and political opponents.
A popular movement that erupted around the constitutional amendment in 2005 has dissipated partially because of government crackdown but also because of lack of focus, and a unifying figure.
Saad el-Katatni, a lawmaker with the Muslim Brotherhood, said the group hopes ElBaradei will change that.
"Previous groups have lacked a symbol. Now we have one that has also galvanized support from young Egyptians," el-Katatni said.
Critics have said ElBaradei lacks experience and hasn't lived in his home country for many years.
Since his return, ElBaradei has met various groups at his house. He met with youth representatives who initiated a petition calling on him to run for presidency. Over 100,000 people have joined a Facebook group supporting his candidacy.
He also met with women representatives and the Arab League's Secretary General Amr Moussa at his office, whose name was also floated by reformists looking for a possible rival to Mubarak.
Since taking office in 1981, Mubarak has not named a successor and never had a vice president but he is believed to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him. The initial constitutional amendments were seen as paving the way for father to son succession.
Many Egyptians also hope ElBaradei's international standing will make
it difficult for the current government to persecute him for trying to
bring reform to the country.
ElBaradei won the 2005 Nobel Peace
Prize and left his Vienna-based post as director general International
Atomic Energy Agency late last year.
"We have new hope," said Abdel-Rahman Yusuf, a leader of the youth group supporting ElBaradei.
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