Leading a demonstration of about 4,000 activists, former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei walked slowly through Alexandria on 25 June in protest against the death of Khaled Mohammed Said, whom human rights groups say was murdered by Egyptian police. ElBaradei’s mission was to offer condolences to Said’s family and protest against the security services.
It was ElBaradei’s largest public meeting since he returned home in February declaring his intention to become “a tool for reform”. Crowds welcomed the 67-year-old Nobel Laureate on his arrival at Cairo airport. With tens of thousands of people joining an online campaign calling on him to run for the presidency, he has raised the hopes of those who want democratic change.
President Hosni Mubarak, 82, has spent 28 years in power and is thought to be grooming his son, Gamal, 46, to take over. So far President Mubarak has not confirmed whether he will stand in next year’s presidential elections.
ElBaradei, who stood up to President George W. Bush’s administration when it insisted that Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was concealing nuclear weapons, is seen as a possible challenger, untainted by corruption allegations. In media interviews, ElBaradei hints at a possible presidential bid – but only if ground rules for a free and fair election are first established.
“He is an alternative to the existing regime which always claims there is no alternative,” said Ahmed Maher of the April 6th Movement which helped organise the welcoming party. “He has a global reputation, extensive administrative experience and he won the Nobel Peace Prize [in 2005], so he is a very appropriate person,” he said.
Novelist Alaa Al Aswany praised ElBaradei for his “difficult choice to come back to Egypt to support his people to get a real democracy”. He suggested he could lead the nation through “a period of transition”.
Opponents claim that ElBaradei’s campaign is losing momentum. Official restrictions and what he calls “the barrier of fear” have limited its impact. He complains he cannot have political headquarters or raise funds and that independent TV stations are under pressure not to interview him. The government has renewed the emergency laws that have been in place for 30 years and insists it will not reverse a constitutional amendment that bars ElBaradei from running as an independent.
?ElBaradei did not join any of the official opposition parties allowed to nominate a contender to run as president, arguing this would “legitimise” the system. Instead, he is backing a new umbrella group, the National Association for Change (NAC), which brings together civic activists and politicians ranging from Islamists to leftists. The NAC has drawn up a petition with seven basic demands. These include ending the state of emergency which bolsters the security services, introducing judicial oversight of the elections, reducing restrictions on who can run for president and placing a two-term limit on whoever serves in office. NAC activists want to get a million people to sign the petition, but they have less than 100,000 so far. The activists differ on the best way to achieve reforms.
?ElBaradei has avoided direct ?confrontation with the regime, preferring to criticise the government via forums on the internet. He recently raised his profile by visiting political centres and places of worship outside Cairo. Some activists have gone onto the streets to press for reform, joining banned demonstrations. After a protest on 6 April, police detained about 100 people.
A stone in stagnant water?
Some leaders in the NAC criticise ElBaradei’s approach, as well as his long absences abroad. “It’s become almost impossible for us to take him as president of our association,” says the general coordinator, Hassan Nafaa, who has decided to step down. “He is certainly willing to suffer but I’m not sure he’s ready to pay the price.” Many have stronger allegiances to other contenders, such as Ayman Nur. Nur finished a distant second in the 2005 poll.
Although he is a secular leftist, ElBaradei has found firmer backing from Islamists in Egypt’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The organisation, which is officially outlawed, controls one-fifth of the seats in the lower house through a network of ‘independent’ MPs. Already represented in the NAC, the MB pledged in June to help efforts to collect names for the group’s petition after a meeting between ElBaradei and the head of its parliamentary bloc, Mohamed Katani. Days earlier, the MB failed to win any seats in the upper chamber in an election marred by accusations of fraud.
A senior member of the Brotherhood, Essam El-Erian, argues that as a prominent international figure, ElBaradei will publicise the need for democratic change. “When he declared that he was going to move with the people for change, it was a very big stone in the stagnant water of Egyptian politics,” he says. Quite how the Islamist MB would hope to gain from ElBaradei’s liberal democratic and secularist politics is open to question.
The Egyptian government has maintained its iron grip on power by intimidating and imprisoning critics. The Brotherhood says that in the past 15 years, over 30,000 of its followers have been arrested. Parties are routinely monitored and infiltrated by security services. Divisions over political agendas and ideologies have also weakened the wider opposition movement.
Analysts view the recent poll for the upper chamber as a key indicator of what is likely to happen in the more important lower chamber polls, due in October, and the presidential election expected next year. If ElBaradei or others are to break through they will have to unite behind reformist goals and convince an Egyptian public that has learnt to be cautious and sceptical.
This article was first published in the August-September 2010 edition of The Africa Report.