The El-Baradei phenomenon
Right now it is Friday morning, only hours before Mohamed El-Baradei is due to arrive in Cairo. Three days ago, I was in Kuwait where I attended a workshop on strategic circumstances in the Middle East. Although Iran, Iraq and of course Palestine and Obama dominated the discussions, Egypt also had a share of attention, and part of this homed in what was called “the El-Baradei phenomenon”. The question was how a single person could suddenly change the political scene of a country. My response, as always, was that it is certainly a wonderful thing for El-Baradei to return to Egypt after having brought so much honour to Egypt in the eyes of the world, not just because he won the Nobel Prize but also because of the reasons why he was awarded that prize. Foremost among these reasons were his success in enhancing the prestige and clout of the International Atomic Energy Agency and his firm stance against nuclear proliferation. At all times, his features, personality, even his unique way of speaking, and above all his wisdom and expertise, have made him a respectable exponent of Egypt.
But perhaps what is most admirable at this time is his determination to enter the Egyptian political arena as a presidential candidate. Not only does this promise to stimulate an arena that has suffered from the lack of “national” figures, it has already encouraged other “national” figures, such as Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and Mansour Hassan, the eminent minister of information under president Anwar El-Sadat, to step into the light. Yet of all these individuals, El-Baradei appears to be the only one who is moving, and in a very well planned and calibrated way. For one, he has avoided excessive media exposure that could force him to speak on issues that he does not want to address and could make him too commonplace. More significantly, he has very deftly avoided all controversial topics, especially among his own following, preferring instead to focus on a set of points over which there is general consensus, notably those pertaining to constitutional articles 76 and 77. In addition, he has been in no rush to engage with the masses. Perhaps his reception in Cairo will be the first test of his prospective popularity. After this he will probably give himself a bit of time before holding other mass rallies, confining himself to appearing on talk shows on Egyptian satellite networks so that his face will become more familiar to the public. Only then will he begin a more direct test of the Egyptian pulse, starting with meetings with Egyptian civil society organisations and then proceeding to an ever-widening circle of engagement. I also predict that in the course of his campaign, although he will be largely focussed on rivalling the National Democratic Party (NDP), he will take pains to set himself apart from a collection of Egyptian politicians who have gained some prominence on satellite stations but who have not yet gathered a significant following on the ground in Egypt. Simply put, El-Baradei will have his mind set on not being like Yehia El-Gamal, Hassan Nafaa, Ayman Nour or Osama El-Ghazali Harb. He will wait until he can be assured of a turnout of hundreds of thousands, and if such numbers do not appear he will quietly quit the scene and return to international forums that will still await him.
This strategy not only remedies the difficulty of entering Egyptian politics after 27 years of being away, it also gives political forces — in the government and the opposition — the chance to adjust to the El-Baradei phenomenon. The responses so far have been varied. The Wafd Party has kept silent. Ayman Nour suddenly announced that he would run for president, regardless of the legalities surrounding his candidacy. Essam El-Erian has issued some supportive statements, although there is no way of knowing whether this reflects the views of all the Muslim Brotherhood or whether this support extends to El-Baradei’s ideas or — which is more likely — was prompted solely by hostility towards the government and the NDP. In all events, El-Baradei will not be able to continue with this strategy much longer because of the huge gap between his positions and ideas and those of the political forces that are beginning to rally around him, from the Arab nationalists, leftists and some liberals to groups that have appeared more recently in the Egyptian scene, such as those that make up the Kifaya (Enough) and “anti-hereditary succession” movements.
In El-Baradei we find an authentic liberal. He is a staunch believer in the civil and even secular state. There is no equivocation or wavering in his support for the separation of powers and checks and balances between the authorities of government, for a state that does not intervene much in the lives and fundamental freedoms of individuals, and hence in a state that regulates but does not manage the economy. On foreign relations, we have a man who spent most of his working life in the West, absorbed its liberal democratic values and, therefore, can see no reason to create some grand ideological conflict with it. In this respect, he would be much more of a Sadat than a Gamal Abdel-Nasser on relations with Israel and Egyptian-Arab relations.
These ideas are not exactly consistent with those of the majority of the Kifaya group and are certainly at great odds with almost all the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood. If he happens to converge with some politicians on a non-existent issue such as the “succession scenario” and on a real issue such as the constitutional amendments, there is little room after that for consensus. Moreover, El-Baradei has much more in common with a broad sector of opinion in the NDP on such matters as peace with Israel, relations with the West, a market economy and even political change than he does with the flock of politicians that are cheering his arrival. On the other hand, El-Baradei has an invisible following that has not yet been tangibly felt on the ground in Egyptian politics because it is still virtual. I am referring to the 60,000 signatories on a pro-El-Baradei website about whom nothing is known apart from the fact that they want change. Ayman Nour, in the past, Osama El-Ghazali Harb and Gamal Mubarak have obtained similar numbers of virtual supporters who, quite simply, want something new in Egyptian politics. However, the new doesn’t stay new forever, especially not when it becomes part of the general hubbub of Egyptian political life, which may frequently be noisy and exciting, but actually moves rather slowly — much more slowly than many would like, which creates frustration and anger.
Yet, regardless of how the bustle unfolds, the El-Baradei candidacy has ushered in an end to the sharp polarisation created by that difficult duality of the NDP versus the Muslim Brotherhood. Now the traditional parties, such as the Wafd, the Progressive Rally, the Nasserist Party and even the Democratic Front will have another chance to work in a secularist framework that is gaining impetus from the entrance of political figures who rose to prominence in the context of the civil state, even if they have very different views and attitudes. The more varied interplay will also open the doors to deeper discussions than we are used to on the major issues facing Egypt today. Consider for a moment that, whatever his views and opinions are today, El-Baradei comes from the heart of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and national security establishment, and the same applies to Amr Moussa and Mansour Hassan. In the next few months, similar figures may make an appearance. None of these individuals came from outside the system. Indeed, they were very much a part of it and, at various points in history, were instrumental in shaping its major policies and decisions. In a way we can regard them as elders of the established order whose work outside greatly broadened and deepened their knowledge and expertise.
All this should inject much more vitality into Egyptian political life, though without taking it outside the bounds that hold that change must come from within and through adjustment to a reality that is no longer what it was. As for that pending dilemma concerning demands for certain constitutional amendments versus the claim that time does not permit them, this can only be resolved through political interplay over the next few months. In the process, the competing individuals and groups will be testing their actual strengths. At the end, we will see either an amended constitution or a shift in the balance of powers, or the same state of play until further notice.