Mohamed ElBaradei isn’t technically eligible to run in Egypt’s 2011 presidential election. But the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, backed by the popular but outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, has lit a fire under President Hosni Mubarak’s stagnant rubber-stamp government since he burst onto Egypt’s political scene in February.
Rumours of ElBaradei’s possible candidacy surfaced in December after he finished his fourth and final term at the IAEA. Then, on Feb. 24, he launched a non-party political movement called the National Association for Change, which released seven demands for a fair electoral process in Egypt. As it stands, ElBaradei is ineligible to run because he does not belong to a party approved by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
He has also said he will only run if his seven conditions are met, and he receives written assurance from the government that the electoral process will be fair. But Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the exiled founder of Cairo’s Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, told Maclean’s that ElBaradei’s presence as a credible possible candidate could stir up an otherwise politically stagnant country. “For a long time, Mubarak had succeeded in framing the Egyptian political discourse as one-or-the-other, suggesting it was either him or the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says. “It was politics of fear, which left the middle class politically paralyzed.”
The majority of Egypt’s nearly 80 million people have only known one president; Mubarak’s 29-year authoritarian rule has seen him re-elected in four successive votes of questionable validity.
(Egypt’s first-ever multi-candidate election was held in 2005, but was criticized for regulations that severely restricted independent candidates and for alleged violation of election laws during voting.) Now, Ibrahim says, ElBaradei’s “ample credibility with Egypt’s political class” and his international reputation could make him a popular contrast to Mubarak. The fact that ElBaradei lived abroad for the past 12 years as a civil servant spared him from being exploited or undermined by the Mubarak regime for his current efforts, says Ibrahim.
ElBaradei won’t necessarily affect change in the short term, says Amr Hamzway, research director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut, given the reluctance of some Egyptians to express political dissent and the fractured nature of the anti-regime opposition. (Though the Muslim Brotherhood is the most powerful opposition group in Egypt, the organization has been weakened by government jailings and regulations since 2007.) “ElBaradei definitely has gotten some credibility, but up until now has failed to mobilize wide segments of the population to stand by him and support him,” says Hamzway.
ElBaradei’s own reluctance to fully commit himself to Egyptian public life has also been problematic. He has been criticized for spending long periods of time outside Egypt since February, although he recently led a rally to protest the beating death of a young man named Khaled Mohammed Said, allegedly at the hands of Egyptian police officers. And with the government unlikely to concede to constitutional change, ElBaradei most likely won’t run in 2011, says Hamzway. “Most likely the elections will be managed autocratically, as the regime did last time in 2005, and the approaching parliamentary elections in 2010 will be managed similarly,” he says.
Regardless, ElBaradei’s rise may have at least spooked the incumbent regime. There had been speculation that the 82-year-old Mubarak was thinking of retiring, and grooming his younger son Gamal to be the next NDP candidate in 2011. But his son’s credentials can’t compete with ElBaradei’s; now, although he has not confirmed it, the elder Mubarak is almost certain to run for a sixth term.
Despite his outspoken criticism of Mubarak’s regime and Egypt’s constitution, ElBaradei’s well-known international status will protect him from undue mistreatment by the government, Hamzway says. “International public opinion has been following ElBaradei since he returned back to Egypt, and these types of things are monitored,” he notes. “The regime will not take the risk of alienating Western allies and national public opinion by arresting ElBaradei or harassing him.”
Mubarak’s government will have to find other ways of dealing with a man with impeccable credentials, and a growing following ready to challenge the long-standing and iron-fisted regime.