The return of Mohamed ElBaradei to Cairo in February after an absence of more than a decade has re-ignited debate about controversial topics that President Hosni Mubarak prefers to avoid: constitutional reform, opposition parties, and the question of his successor.

Speculation about who will succeed 81-year-old Mubarak has been mounting during the past couple of years as the 2011 presidential elections nears, and ElBaradei’s homecoming has intensified the debate.

Egyptians have seized upon ElBaradei to be the champion of change for a country that has had the same leader for nearly 30 years. The former head of the Washington-headquartered International Atomic Energy Agency has not yet said he will contest the presidency, but he has already called openly for reforms.

Political activists in Egypt have long sought a credible opponent to Mubarak, and in the Nobel-prize winner, unsullied by corruption accusations, they believe they have found the perfect candidate, who, as a world-famous public figure, will also be much more difficult to silence than other oppositionists.

The last presidential election in 2005, with turnout of less than 25 per cent, was a failure for the Middle East region’s largest supposed democracy, and a clear sign that the country had grown disillusioned with its leadership.

The run-up to the 2011 vote is now certain to be much more engaging, both for the electorate and observers. The reception received by ElBaradei shows the attention of a previously apathetic public has been captured by the prospect that a new chapter in the modern history of Egypt could soon be written.

How the president reacts to the arrival of this new challenger in the coming weeks and months will go a long way to determine the outcome of next year’s election, regardless of who stands, but it could also determine the nature of the president’s legacy.

With the eyes of the world on ElBaradei, Mubarak’s leadership is under scrutiny as never before.