Is Egypt ready for democracy?

After his major success in keeping the world safe from nuclear non-proliferation, Mohamed ElBaradei is now trying his hand at politics, and people are wondering what kind of ‘change’ to expect

May 30, 2010 05:36
3 minute read.
Mohamed ElBaradei supports

Mohamed ElBaradei supports 311. (photo credit: Miret el Naggar/MCT)


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I hear Mohamed ElBaradei is in the running for the Egyptian presidency. You may know him as the former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency; he did such a fine job that the UN voted to keep him from 1997 to 2009. Who says political influence in the UN doesn’t work?

He and the IAEA were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for the laudable accomplishment of preventing Iran and North Korea from being regulated under the IAEA (it actually doesn’t matter at this point why they were awarded it – the Nobel Institute gives the stuff away like candy). During his reign he had to deal with the Iraqi nuclear facilities and inspections as well as the Bush administration’s infamous fables. He also had the pleasure of dealing with Iran as a new nuclear nation, not to mention its work toward building the Bomb. In fact, he is still not convinced it will.

Much like his father, a staunch democracy advocate in Egypt, ElBaradei tried to teach Americans how to exercise their democratic rights by undermining the Bush administration. Despite the IAEA’s poor track record in Iran, he was adamant about protecting Iranian nuclear sites from potential Israeli air strikes. In fact, in an interview in June 2008 with Al-Arabiya TV, he threatened to resign in the event of military action against Iran.

As a potential future leader and a past UN bureaucrat, he has laid out his foreign policy clearly for all to see. Not that he wanted to be critical of Israel, but he believes nuclear nonproliferation has lost its legitimacy because of a perceived double standard associated with its alleged nuclear weapons program, and obviously not because of his lack of accomplishment during his tenure at the IAEA (not to mention 50 years of arms race by the big boys).

AFTER HIS major success in keeping the world safe from nuclear nonproliferation, he is trying his hand at politics in Egypt. And just in case you wondered how one reconciles fundamentalist Islam and democracy – wait for it – ElBaradei may have the answer. He has been talking with the largest and best-funded opposition group in Egypt, namely the Muslim Brotherhood.

In case all of this is news to you, the Brothers are responsible for the Islamic fundamentalist undercurrent that now feels ready to govern, not only in Egypt, but all over the Middle East. Without their support, ElBaradei won’t have any chance of success and, with the current state of the country being much like a dry tinder box, ElBaradei’s popularity makes him attractive to the Brothers as a way to light that fire.

His followers are experiencing a bit of Egyptian-style intimidation by the current regime and even the Kuwaitis, who are loyal to President Hosni Mubarak, have turned on his supporters and deported a number of them. In fact, Iranian state media refers to him as a high-profile dissident. ElBaradei’s popularity stems from several sources: his role as an instrument of change (much like Barack Obama today, and Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979), his foreign policy position vis-à-vis the US and Israel, and his naïveté when it comes to ideal solutions in the perfect world vs. reality on the ground.

Some say ElBaradei reorganized the IAEA into a large bureaucracy that got into the game of conflict resolution rather than sticking to monitoring, measurement and reporting. Playing in the former game simply mired the IAEA in an intellectual exercise that has led to its own ineffectiveness. His successor certainly has a huge mess to clean up. As ElBaradei sits in his gated community near Giza, pondering how to bring change to Egypt and entertaining the parliamentary head of the Brothers at his house, one wonders what kind of change to expect.

The most interesting question could be: Is Egypt ready for democracy? The most honest answer would probably be no. Even if some sort of democratic movement should result in a reasonably free election, it would not last. We all know that democracy comes when those who demand it understand the basic elements of such a paradigm and are able to exercise them with prejudice. ElBaradei says Egypt is thirsty for change. Change for the sake of change has been a recurring theme in Egypt for a long time. The religious cultural revolution born in the mid-1950s is now ready to take the helm. All that’s needed is a catalyst. Enter Mohamed ElBaradei.

I think we’ve seen this movie before! Wasn’t it called Iran’s pro-democracy movement of 1979 – with the role of agent of change played by an exiled ayatollah compared to Gandhi?

The writer’s name has been changed to protect his/her identity.

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