The hundreds of ardent supporters who gathered to meet Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, when he returned to Egypt on Friday held signs that said “Yes: ElBaradei President of Egypt.”
The fact that the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nobel Peace Prize winner has not declared himself a candidate in next year’s presidential elections, and would find it almost impossible to get on the ballot if he does, didn’t seem to matter to those who waited hours to welcome him. Amid chants, cheers, and songs, many declared him the only hope for change for their country, which has been ruled by an aging Hosni Mubarak for almost 30 years.
But his entry into the campaign seems unlikely, as he has set conditions for considering a candidacy that haven't existed in an Egyptian election since the 1950s. Most importantly, he said, he won't run unless the elections are free and fair.
That’s what makes Dr. ElBaradei’s movement distinctive: his goal does not seem to be to become Egypt’s president, but rather to bring democratic reform to the Egyptian political system.
“I believe that the time has come for Egypt to make a serious move towards real democracy … This is what I am advocating and is my primary goal: creating the environment that enables the Egyptians to feel that they are in charge of their destiny,” ElBaradei wrote in an email to the Monitor. “If this environment is to be created whoever is going to be elected as president is of secondary importance. The focus should be to create a government of law and not a government of men.”
ElBaradei, whose tenure as head of the IAEA ended in November, announced late last year he would consider running for president in Egypt’s 2011 presidential elections only if independent judicial review and international oversight of the elections was guaranteed. He also called for the repeal of a constitutional amendment passed in 2005 that effectively bars independent candidates from running for president.
Ayman Nour, who challenged Mubarak in Egypt's first multi-candidate elections in 2005, ended up in jail for his efforts. This week, Mr. Nour announced his intention to run again in 2011.
While many analysts are doubtful that he will be able to achieve much change, they say ElBaradei could reinvigorate a public debate about democracy in Egypt and put some pressure on the regime – if he can generate a large, sustained following.
Those gathered Friday – in a country where unauthorized gatherings are illegal – seemed to indicate that he has some energetic followers.
After his flight was delayed two hours, the large, excited, and unruly crowd at the airport exit apparently prevented ElBaradei from safely greeting his supporters. Some in the crowd speculated that he refused to meet them at the request of state security officials on the scene. He eventually exited through a different terminal, and drove through the crowd in a black SUV, which the crowd mobbed. Supporters were bitterly disappointed that he had not greeted them and blamed state security.
While the majority of those waiting were young people, where ElBaradei has developed a strong following, there were also Egyptians of all ages and people from several different opposition groups. They chanted slogans supporting ElBaradei and against Mr. Mubarak. Many voiced their opposition to the perceived grooming of Mubarak’s son Gamal to succeed his father as president.
Abdelrahman Samir, one of the organizers of the self-appointed “Independent People’s Campaign to Support ElBaradei 2011,” says that ElBaradei was the only viable alternative to Mubarak's son. “ElBaradei is the last chance to change conditions for the people of Egypt,” he says. “If he doesn’t succeed, there is no chance. There is no alternative.”
Potential tipping point
Those are high hopes for a man who Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid, political science professor at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo, says is unlikely to become a candidate. The regime is completely unwilling to amend the constitution to allow independents to run for president, as it could open the door for Muslim Brotherhood candidates to run for president, he says.
Professor Sayyid says there is a possibility the regime could agree to increased election monitoring, though he doesn't expect it to amount to much, since that would happen through the National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by the government.
Unless ElBaradei’s support increases dramatically, says Sayyid, “there is no reason to believe his presence will change the scene in Egypt in any fundamental way.” He says that ElBaradei’s support is limited, with many Egyptian opposition groups planning to declare their own candidates. And much of ElBaradei’s support comes from loosely-organized groups of young people without large political organizations behind them, he says.
But optimists hope that ElBaradei will stir the stagnant waters of Egyptian politics.
Egyptian democracy and human rights advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim says he is hopeful that ElBaradei will make a difference in Egypt. “I think with a little bit of resolve on [ElBaradei’s] part, I think we can have another tipping point in 2010, in the sense that the pressure will mount, and Mubarak will have to relent somehow,” he says.
But it is not clear how long ElBaradei will remain in Egypt, and how he will maintain momentum if he leaves. He hinted that his visit will not be permanent in an email, saying, “I will continue, both when I am inside and outside of Egypt, where I still have commitments in the public domain, to push for reform and hope that the government will understand that this is the only way forward and that a peaceful transition is in the interest of all.”
Ahmed Abou Hussein, an avid supporter of ElBaradei’s who started a Facebook page to support his candidacy, says he hopes that the movement inspired by ElBaradei is stronger and wider than just one election.
“People are wondering – will there be an alternative? Will Dr. ElBaradei symbolize a strong opposition? Even if he doesn't run for president, will he be able to get people to unite and make their opinions heard?”