State agencies sternly warned supporters to stay away from the airport on February 19th, yet hundreds turned out with signs in hand, chanting slogans in celebration of the return of Egypt’s native son, Mohamed ElBaradei. He is once again making international headlines, but not as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Many want him to be the next leader of Egypt, and his fan base, according to a Facebook page that urges him to run for president in the upcoming 2011 elections, is rapidly growing.
Despite all the hype about ElBaradei’s candidacy, particularly in the left-leaning independent newspaper El Dostour, politics in Egypt will likely remain the same. Octogenarian President Hosni Mubarak has not stated his intent to step down at the close of his current term, although many anticipate that he will anoint his son, Gamal, as his successor. Either by choice or the fate of nature, a new face may soon replace the fixed, decaying depictions of a younger Hosni that are plastered across the country. Although unlikely, the next presidential elections—only the second of its kind in Egypt’s history—could end the nearly three-decade reign of the Mubarak dynasty and the National Democratic Party (NDP). That is, if a viable opposition candidate is brave enough to run against him. The last person with potential to position himself against the NDP, Ayman Nour, served a three-year jail sentence on trumped-up forgery charges.
ElBaradei has only hinted at the possibility that he will take on this role, and that his candidacy would be conditional upon free and fair elections. If the reported ballot stuffing, vote rigging, and voter intimidation of 2005 presidential elections are a sign of what to expect in 2011, he will not bear witness to the type of process he seeks. The Ministry of Social Solidarity, an arm of the executive, permitted only a handful of domestic non-governmental organizations to monitor selected polling stations during the first presidential election in 2005. International monitoring efforts by organizations such as the National Democratic Institute are permitted on condition their activities are confined to training local observers. Indeed, Egypt’s judiciary is granted considerable power from the constitution to observe elections, which provides a robust check on executive overreach. However, the new Presidential Election Commission, a combination of judicial and civil figures nominated by Mubarak’s parliament, is designated to take over the task.
In addition to these major obstacles, 2005 and 2007 constitutional amendments prohibit independent candidacy, and ElBaradei is not currently affiliated with any political party. Perhaps for this reason he is focusing his efforts not on a futile presidential campaign, but instead on desperately needed political and institutional reform. ElBaradei is becoming for Egypt what President Obama is for the healthcare bill on Capitol Hill. He is attempting to build a coalition among Egypt’s opposition groups notorious for internal rivalries, and encouraging them to focus on the single area where they agree—making Egypt more democratic. In conjunction with an array of political activists, ElBaradei is now leading the National Coalition for Change. So far, opposition elements appear to be willing to follow the one Egyptian with so much star power, he succeeded in shaming the government by calling for revision of the constitution.
As Nobel Peace Prize laureate and thrice appointed head of the IAEA, ElBaradei is a widely known and respected man. President Mubarak and the NDP, by exploiting state-owned news outlets, a brutal police apparatus, and abuse of Emergency Law, have managed to either quash or discredit the opposition since 1981. In fact, on March 4th, Mubarak straightforwardly commented that Egypt did not need a “hero.” Given ElBaradei’s global reputation, the regime will not easily be able to paint him as some fringe radical to be casually dismissed. However, the opposition elite, namely Wafd and the few other outdated political parties who cling to the miserable scraps of power they are discarded, recently announced they will oppose ElBaradei’s nomination to run in the 2011 election.
Yet, Mohammed ElBaradei’s intimation that he will run for presidential is less about his intention to fill the position, and more about his desire for political change. The chances that anyone who is not specifically selected by the ruling elite can win are quite slim. Cairo’s deeply entrenched patrimonial system is paving a smooth path for hereditary succession by Mubarak’s son. The forces for change within Egypt will be silenced either by force or by chicanery. Egyptians will cower in silence, and powerful Western nations will continue to turn a blind eye.
That is, unless a prominent and respected international figure can shed light on the shadows of Egypt’s failing state. Although he may not end up leading the Middle East’s most populous nation, ElBaredei will direct increased attention to the poor state of democratic and human rights in Egypt, and possibly affect the direction of presidential politics in the future. He possesses the strength to press the government at home as well as those abroad, to finally acknowledge that democracy in Egypt should be oppressed no longer. Tangible outcomes from ElBaradie’s call for change will depend upon the actions of more than a single man, regardless of his stature. More opposition forces must band together behind his efforts if they are to succeed. A vessel with fewer than half its crew, or its captain alone, is far less likely to complete the uncertain journey.
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