In the space of just a few short weeks, the Cairo-born former head of the Vienna-headquartered International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei has become synonymous with the struggle for political reform in Egypt. ElBaradei’s announcement that he wishes to be a force for constitutional change has inspired people from all classes and political persuasions to see him as the one great hope for reform in a country whose republican political system has effectively been closed to opposition parties throughout its 58-year history.

In numbers:

  • 160,000: Supporters in a Facebook group backing ElBaradei in the 2011 election
  • 250 members: Parliament and government backing needed for independents to contest elections

Source: MEED

Fresh perspective

The return of the 67-year-old Nobel prize winner to Cairo on 19 February, after an absence of 12 years, was awaited by nearly 1,000 supporters, including leading intellectuals and opposition politicians, undeterred by the presence of 6,000 security officials. In the weeks since his return, a Facebook group set up to back ElBaradei for the 2011 presidential election has reportedly garnered more than 160,000 members. The April 6 student movement has launched a national petition in an effort to secure 3 million signatories for his policies. And graffiti has begun to appear in the streets of Cairo in support of an ElBaradei presidency.

For his part, ElBaradei has not been afraid to appeal directly to the Egyptian people. He met personally with the young campaigners who first floated the idea of a presidential candidacy, and in his first live interview since his arrival in Cairo, used language reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s 1963 appeal for black rights in the US. “I have an idea, which is to help people exercise their freedom and for there to be social justice,” he said. “Ninety-nine per cent of Egyptians want change, the poor and the rich, the young and the old.”

In many ways, ElBaradei is the perfect candidate to mount such a campaign. The fact that he has been out of the country for so many years means that he is not sullied with allegations of corruption or scandal, and while he lacks experience of domestic Egyptian politics, his international profile both gives him political cache and makes him difficult for the government to marginalise.

As a result, he has given the opposition movement a natural focal point and reinvigorated political debate in a country where hope for change has long seemed forlorn. “His return has been very important because he has a position that is not party-based; he’s disinterested, so he’s injected a fresh perspective into the debate,” says George Joffe, a Middle East and North Africa specialist at the University of Cambridge Department of Politics and International Studies. “He’s trying to use himself as a force to open up the political process,” says Angus Blair, head of research at Cairo-based investment bank Beltone Financial.

The impact of ElBaradei’s return has clearly rattled the establishment. President Hosni Mubarak’s statement on 4 March that “the entire people are heroes – we don’t need new heroes” betrayed the fact that he recognises this is exactly what ElBaradei has already become to many people.

But just as the crowd waiting to greet ElBaradei at the airport was ultimately to be disappointed when he left through a back exit, those same supporters are likely to face further disappointment if they believe that the momentum created by his dramatic arrival in the country can be quickly transformed into a revolution of Egyptian politics.

The most fundamental problem faced by ElBaradei is that under the current constitution he cannot stand as a presidential candidate in the next election, scheduled for 2011. “If he wants to join a party, he can choose whichever one he wants,” Mubarak told reporters in early March. “If he wants to be a [presidential] candidate for that party, he can do that. If he wants to stand as an independent candidate, he can do that. The only thing is that he must respect the constitution.”

Under constitutional changes made in 2005 that paved the way for what were nominally Egypt’s first free elections in more than half a century, presidential candidates must either lead a political party established for at least five years or, if they are standing as an independent, have the support of a minimum of 250 members of parliament and local government. In reality, the dominance of the country’s national and local legislatures by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) makes this as likely, as one opposition party official put it, as getting milk from a pigeon.

Political control

Mubarak’s regime has proven highly effective in preventing any kind of concerted opposition to its hegemony. His iron grip over all instruments of state has ensured that the NDP has proved untouchable in local and national elections and made effective opposition to the regime impossible. In the run up to the 2005 election, presidential hopeful Ayman Nour of El-Ghad party was imprisoned for alleged forgery and although he was allowed to contest the election was subsequently tried and jailed for more than three years.

The Mubarak government has shown no inclination to ease its grip on political control. The country’s largest political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, is prevented from contesting elections under legislation banning overtly religious parties, but its members, running as independents, secured 88 seats in elections to the lower house in 2005, equivalent to 20 per cent of the total vote. In the early months of 2010, between 350-400 of the organisation’s members have been arrested, say lawyers representing the movement, in an apparent attempt to clamp down ahead of elections to parliament’s upper house in June and lower house elections in the autumn.

And on 11 March, Egypt’s public prosecutor opened an investigation into accusations that a state security officer tortured one of ElBaradei’s supporters after he tried to organise a rally in support of an ElBaradei presidential bid, reported Ikhwan Web, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official website.

Opposition movement

All too aware of the challenges he faces, ElBaradei said in early March that whether he makes a presidential bid is a “tertiary issue” compared to the goal of political reform. He has also made it clear that he does not want to align himself with a specific party and has instead become the de facto head of what he calls a “broad-based movement for change”. This movement, a loose grouping of political reformers collectively known as the National Assembly for Change (NAC), has outlined seven key goals, including elections open to all candidates, guarantees of fair elections, and an end to Egypt’s emergency laws, which allow the government to operate outside the constitution. The political opposition movement Kefaya has said it is working closely on the development of the NAC’s strategy.

The credit for revitalising political life and constitutional reform should not go to ElBaradei

Mahmoud Abaza, Wafd party leader

Although most opposition parties have announced goals broadly in line with those of the NAC, ElBaradei’s decision to shun party membership has frustrated politicians who have been campaigning for change for years and view his style as one of self-promotion.

“Once he was back in Egypt, he was keen to declare that he has no interest in co-ordinating with opposition parties and that he prefers to communicate with the public directly,” said Wafd party leader Mahmoud Abaza in mid-March. “The credit for revitalising political life and constitutional reform should not go to ElBaradei, who has lived outside Egypt for more than 30 years. It is opposition parties, and the Wafd foremost among them, that have been the driving force behind the movement for reform.”

The Muslim Brotherhood has also played down ElBaradei’s potential impact. “It’s difficult to talk about an individual being effective,” said executive bureau member Mohammed Morfy in an interview with MEED. “We are not talking about a revolution or a superman – it’s not easy, it takes time. If people get freedom it will be a big achievement, because the regime will not give it easily. If we think about Mr ElBaradei as a superman we’re making the problem a very shallow one. Unless everyone in every movement or party integrates then it remains difficult.”

As ElBaradei is already finding, such integration will not be easy. In the past, opposition groups have found it difficult to co-ordinate their efforts, or to bridge the gap between their political aspirations and the more specific needs of the population.

Some commentators have interpreted the messianic appeal of ElBaradei as itself a testament to the people’s lack of faith in the potential for existing opposition groups to deliver change. Even while championing integration, the Muslim Brotherhood has kept itself at arm’s length from the NAC. The party does not want to join a bloc, but be part of a “sort of front moving in the same direction”, says Morfy.

But while the odds are stacked against ElBaradei, he still presents a headache for the regime. Although most observers expect Mubarak to stand in the 2011 election, his recent visit to a German hospital for a gallstone operation was an untimely reminder that the president will not live forever. He has never appointed a vice-president, and while there is a consensus that Mubarak’s son Gamal is being groomed for the presidency, he is not a popular figure, and there is general hostility to the idea of hereditary succession.

Working together

Some analysts suggest that Mubarak may find a way to neutralise ElBaradei by bringing him into the regime, though it seems unlikely that ElBaradei would contemplate such a move unless he were given a remit for constitutional reform. Others say that Mubarak’s statements on the impossibility of further constitutional change might quickly be reversed, as they were in 2005, and that he might be encouraged to allow ElBaradei to stand as a means of demonstrating that he is open to political change. Such a dramatic turnaround cannot be ruled out, although again ElBaradei would seek to attach conditions on free and fair elections that might prove difficult to satisfy.

For all the obstacles ElBaradei faces, his strategy of presenting himself as an independent force for political change is a shrewd one, and for the time being he will be happy to have enlivened the constitutional reform debate. As for a presidential candidacy, he is still testing the waters. It remains to be seen whether they prove deep enough for him to dive in.