CAIRO // The former UN atomic energy chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, was greeted in Cairo airport last night by hundreds of boisterous supporters who chanted pro-reform slogans and called for him to run for president.
Mr ElBaradei was on two occasions unable to leave the VIP lounge at the airport after his plane touched down from Vienna because of the crowds that gathered to celebrate his return.
The crowd sang the national anthem and chanted: “ElBaradei, you can’t go back, we need you.” Many held up placards with pictures of Mr ElBaradei or slogans reading: “ElBaradei for president of Egypt.”
“Hope is being born today,” said one woman in her 40s who asked not to be named.
“I came because I know with ElBaradei we will start a long journey that will entail a lot of struggle and effort, but we want to start it with him, and I came to tell him thank you and that we love him,” said the woman whose son, a graduate in computer science, had to leave Egypt to find a job in his field.
“Egypt deserves much better than how things are these days.”
Among the crowd were political activists of all stripes, including the author Alaa El Aswany, George Ishaq, the head of the Kefaya movement, which opposes the presidency of current President Hosni Mubarak, and a number of Muslim Brotherhood members.
Also there was Gamila Ismail, the wife of former political prisoner and current head of the opposition Al Ghad party, Ayman Nour.
Security in and around the airport was not as large as expected after security sources had said on Thursday that measures would be taken to prevent any “illegal demonstrations” by Mr ElBaradei’s supporters at the airport.
Mr ElBaradei, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with the IAEA in 2005, has repeatedly called for democratic change in Egypt since stepping down as the agency’s head in November.
On the eve of his return, he reaffirmed his determination to “do everything I can for Egypt to advance toward democracy and economic and social progress”.
“I hope to be an instrument for change,” the long-time international civil servant said in an interview with Egypt’s Dream TV. “I am ready to throw myself into Egyptian political life on the condition that there are free elections, and the first step toward that would be a constitutional amendment under which I can be a candidate [for president] and others as well.”
Hosni Mubarak, 81, the Egyptian president, will complete his fifth term in office next year and his son, Gamal, is often cited as his potential successor.
The current constitution effectively bars an ElBaradei candidacy. It requires candidates to have been a leading member of a party, for at least one year, and the party must have been in existence for at least five years. Such is not the case with Mr ElBaradei.
And for him to run as an independent, he would have to be endorsed by at least 250 elected officials, including 65 members of the National Assembly, 25 members of the Consultative Council (senate) and 10 members of municipal councils. All those bodies are dominated by Mr Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse