Egypt is riding the wave of ElBaradei euphoria. In the run-up to the 2009-10 election marathon, the country simmers with protests. Three elections will determine the future role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics and the succession to the incumbent autocratic president Hosni Mubarak. The appearance of former IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei as a possible Mubarak rival in the November 2011 presidential elections has spurred hopes of political change in Egypt. European support to Egypt’s wind of change has been neglegible. Western concerns with Egypt’s domestic situation are routinely overshadowed by security concerns in the region’s many hotspots, for which the Mubarak regime is considered an indispensable partner.
A Nobel Peace Prize laureate and an internationally respected figure, ElBaradei has a profile that the Mubarak regime will find very hard to discredit. Although his lengthy absence from the country may be a disadvantage, it also means that his file at the Egyptian secret service is thin and the regime has little material to try to incriminate him. The National Association for Change (NAC) supporting ElBaradei’s candidacy, is campaigning for the constitutional amendments he has put forward as a precondition for running. These include the end of the three-decade-long state of emergency; allowing electoral monitoring by local judges and international monitors; the right to vote for Egyptians residing abroad; term limits for the presidency; and eliminating official obstacles to independent presidential candidates. Without these, ElBaradei faces a dilemma: by joining one of the licensed parties, he would be implicitly accepting the rules of the game pre-determined by the Mubarak regime, thus renouncing his current credibility. But having explicitly declared that he would only run if the Constitution was amended, he has given the regime an extra reason not to do so.
In just a few months, the number of ElBaradei’s ‘fans’ on Facebook have skyrocketed to over 150,000, contrasting with Hosni Mubarak’s 240 and his son Gamal’s 6,000. For the time being, the former IAEA head campaigns mainly on his demands for constitutional reform, but has yet to formulate a substantial presidential platform and build a popular grassroots base. ElBaradei’s credentials will not nurture him forever, and simply being the ‘anti-Mubarak’ does not offer any solutions to the Egyptian people’s pressing concerns. Most Egyptians are aware that a real power shift in the current panorama is practically impossible. But the mobilisation for ElBaradei will push boundaries. As one Egyptian blogger put it: ‘El-Baradei is our Kerry, who will pave the way for our Obama’. The degree to which the current wave of mobilisation will have a real impact on Egypt’s political panorama depends above all on the different opposition and protest movements uniting to form a common front. The dynamic labour movement, which has been mobilising massively on the grounds of concrete workers’ demands, has carefully stayed aloof of broader political demands. A popular coalition that excludes the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Islamist constituency is also unlikely to succeed. Since the Brothers’ landslide win in the 2005 legislative elections, the regime has waged a systematic campaign of repression against the group, and remains successful in picturing the MB as a radical threat to liberalism that can only be countered by Mubarak’s firm hand. Despite the MB’s attempts to mend fences with the secular opposition parties and rumours of a presumed backdoor deal with the regime, it is widely expected that the group’s focus will shift away from political contestation.
EU and US support to Egyptian democrats has been disappointing. But the perceived trade-off between security and democracy in the Middle East only exists in the heads of short-sighted Western politicians incapable of looking beyond their horizon of their electoral mandate. The upcoming negotiations over an upgrade of relations between the EU and Egypt at the first bilateral EU-Egypt summit in Barcelona on June 6th are unlikely to change this unhealthy approach. With or without ElBaradei, Mubarak’s days will soon be over. The West, with great stakes in Egypt as a regional power hub, would be well advised to forge new alliances before it is too late.