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Eyeing presidency, Mohamed ElBaradei rallies Egypt for reform

Former UN nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei is advocating democratic reforms that could allow him to run in the 2011 presidential election and break Hosni Mubarak's three-decade rule. But voters may not care enough to risk arrest and beatings.

By Correspondent / April 23, 2010

Mohamed ElBaradei, here in his Cairo home, draws most of his support from Egypt’s elite. Now he seeks to get ordinary Egyptians to demand democratic change, including repeal of the Emergency Law, used by President Hosni Mubarak to stifle opposition.

Nasser Nasser/AP

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Cairo

When ex-United Nations nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei returned home to Egypt in February, adoring crowds urged him to run for president.

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The excitement increased when he unveiled the National Association for Change, a coalition of opposition movements pushing for democratic reform that hopes to break the regime's nearly 30-year grip on power.

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Dr. ElBaradei, whom some see as Egypt's best opportunity for change, has injected fresh air into Egyptian politics at a pivotal time.

Egypt is bracing for its first political transition since President Hosni Mubarak took power in 1981. President Mubarak, now in his 80s, appears to be grooming his son Gamal to take power – possibly in the 2011 presidential election.

Current laws make it virtually impossible for ElBaradei to run for president, though he has hinted he would do so if those laws were changed. He has focused instead on advocating for reform of Egypt's political system.

But most of ElBaradei's support comes from the thin upper crust of Egyptian society. So now that the dust has settled, he and his coalition partners face the difficult task of trying to get ordinary Egyptians to join them in demanding democratic change.

'People don't care'

"When ElBaradei will be a real threat to the regime is when you ask someone on the street, 'Do you know ElBaradei?' And he says 'Yes, I love him,' " says Osama al-Ghazali Harb, leader of the opposition Democratic Front Party and a member of ElBaradei's coalition. "This is the core of the problem – that people don't care."

Indeed, less than one-quarter of Egyptians voted in the 2005 presidential election. Political rallies rarely attract more than a few thousand, and usually far fewer, in a nation of almost 80 million.

The price for political participation in Egypt is high – the regime regularly arrests, beats, and harasses activists – and that's part of what ElBaradei wants to change. He has called on the government to end the Emergency Law, which has been used to quell opposition for nearly three decades.

Under the law, expected to be renewed in May, gatherings of more than five people are illegal and security forces can detain people indefinitely without trial.

ElBaradei's camp also seeks constitutional reforms that will ensure independent monitoring of elections and make it easier for unaffiliated candidates to run for president.

ElBaradei supporters arrested

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