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EGYPT: ElBaradei Appears an Unconvincing Alternative

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

CAIRO, Feb 4 2011 (IPS) - Since early last year, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei has been touted as a possible successor to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But many protesters say ElBaradei enjoys little if any credibility on the street.

Pro-Mubarak supporters rally against ElBaradei; he is not very popular among protesters either. Credit: Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

Pro-Mubarak supporters rally against ElBaradei; he is not very popular among protesters either. Credit: Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

“ElBaradei doesn’t represent the demonstrators who have been protesting for days in Tahrir Square,” Sarah Ramadan, 20-year-old member of the Youth Movement for Freedom and Justice told IPS. “His position on many issues remains vague, and he spends most of his time outside Egypt.”

ElBaradei first tabled the idea of running in Egypt’s 2011 presidential elections a year ago, having just finished his tenure as IAEA chief, but conditioned his candidacy on a list of demands. These included guarantees that elections would be free and fair, constitutional amendments to allow independent candidates to run for president, and electoral oversight by independent monitors.

“My hope is that in the year-and-a-half run-up to the presidential elections the rules of the political game in Egypt will change,” ElBaradei declared at the time.

ElBaradei received a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Egypt in February of last year, with over a thousand euphoric supporters turning out to greet him at Cairo International Airport. In a series of subsequent interviews in the independent media, ElBaradei – taking a page, perhaps, from U.S. President Barack Obama’s successful election campaign – trumpeted the need for “change”.

“I want to change the country,” ElBaradei told one interviewer. “And if the way to change it is to become president, then first I want that opportunity, then I will decide whether I will run.”

Soon after his return to Egypt, ElBaradei established the National Assembly for Change (NAC), a broad coalition of opposition forces devoted to political reform and the abolition of Egypt’s longstanding Emergency Law. The NAC then launched a campaign in coordination with several small opposition parties aimed at collecting one million signatures in support of its demands.

On Jan. 27, ElBaradei returned to Cairo once more – after having spent several months abroad – to join the rapidly burgeoning anti-government protests in Egypt. And he has found a degree of support.

“I support ElBaradei because he has a good deal of political and diplomatic experience, and I admire his vision for badly needed political reform,” Mahmoud Adel al-Heta, 23-year-old demonstrator and founder of a pro- ElBaradei Facebook page told IPS. “Since his return, he’s been out on the streets and has been welcomed by the people.”

Al-Heta defended ElBaradei’s frequent trips to Europe – the source of recurrent criticism even from his supporters. “He takes these trips in order to serve the cause of change, because in Egypt his movements are strictly limited by the government.”

But despite his few brief appearances at Tahrir Square since the protests began, many demonstrators now camped out in the square say the former IAEA chief enjoys little popularity.

“Since the uprising first started, ElBaradei hasn’t made any bold statements or explained where he stands,” said Ramadan. “This has severely eroded his support among protesters and the people in general.

“Even some of ElBaradei’s early backers have abandoned him,” she noted. “After several of them were arrested and harassed by police, he did little besides issue bland statements of condemnation, in a manner no different than Egypt’s other ineffectual opposition leaders.

“His popularity peaked after his highly-publicised return to Egypt early last year,” Ramadan added. “But now, because of his ambiguous positions on a number of issues – not least of which is Palestine – along with his frequent trips abroad, he has never been less popular.”

Asmaa Mahfouz, 26-year-old member of the 6 April protest movement and active demonstrator, voiced a similar opinion.

“Among most activists, ElBaradei doesn’t enjoy the credibility needed to become president of the country,” she told IPS. “I might accept him as part of a transitional government or negotiating committee, but not as president.”

According to Aymen Sallah, 27-year-old government employee from Cairo and demonstrator of no particular political orientation, ElBaradei is “no more representative of the Egyptian people than the Mubarak regime.

“I’m demonstrating today so I can choose who will run my country,” Sallah told IPS. “And that person must be someone from the people; who has experience of Egyptians’ everyday problems; who has ridden a microbus to work and has had his water cut off for hours at a time – and that’s not Mr. ElBaradei.”

Many political analysts have likewise challenged ElBaradei’s right to the presidency in the rapidly approaching post-Mubarak era.

“This popular uprising doesn’t belong to ElBaradei, or to any other particular political party or group – it belongs to all of the people of Egypt,” Hasan Nafaa, prominent political commentator and political science professor at Cairo University wrote in independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm on January 28.

“ElBaradei, who has been long absent from Egypt, must understand that this uprising is not his uprising, and that any attempt to promote the idea that he was the driving force behind it will fail.”

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