Two days ago we went to the office of a small NGO in Downtown Cairo to meet Abdel RahmanYoussef, the poet, television presenter and activist who is being the campaign to draft Mohamed ElBaradei. Youssef and a handful of others are using the office as a temporary HQ for the ElBaradei campaign, and were busy preparing today's welcome at Cairo Airport.
So far, most of their work has been online: they are the people behind the "ElBaradei for President" website and the Facebook group that has, to date, 65,775 members and is growing at up to 2,000 members a day. But they've also been preparing for the return of Egypt's prodigal son. Versed in activist training seminars, they trained 120 people to manage today's gathering at Cairo Airport. Each person will be responsible for maintaining orders, leading the welcoming committee, and organizing attendance. They hope to have anything from several hundred to several thousand in attendance.
The problem is that it's not clear that the authorities will allow that. A lot of different scenarios to deflate the welcoming committee are possible. ElBaradei's flight — currently scheduled for 3pm on Flight 863 at Terminal 3 (although strangely it's not listed on today's arrivals list for Cairo Airport) — could be delayed. It could be diverted to another terminal, or to the VIP area of the airport where it would be far from the welcoming committee. There was a rumor going yesterday that police would impose an on-the-spot LE1,000 fine to anyone going to the airport to see ElBaradei. They could bar people without a ticket coming in, or do countless other things. Youssef, though, thought that media attention and the fact that it's ElBaradei meant the authorities would not prevent the meeting — "ElBaradei is a headache for the regime, they're not sure how to handle it," he told us. I am less sanguine, and as I head to the airport in a few hours I am not expecting an easy ride (although as a journalist I may have better luck than ElBaradei supporters.)
The ElBaradei campaign people have been in touch with their man, although they won't say how much. But it's an independent initiative, they are not being run by ElBaradei himself. I did not get a clear sense of whether they think they will join an "official" movement behind ElBaradei, or what ElBaradei intend to do beyond media appearances such as yesterday's interview with the prominent broadcaster Ahmed al-Muslimani on Dream TV. I couldn't watch the interview, but Zeinobia liked it. We'll put up the YouTube video when it comes out, and there is a preview of another interview with the generally anti-ElBaradei Amr Adib here. In America, Foreign Policy is planning to run the full interview it excerpted a few weeks ago.
The important thing for the ElBaradei campaign, I was told, is to move from online activism to the street. "We can't have an impact unless we have hundreds of people standing behind Dr. ElBaradei," Youssef explained. He expressed impatience with the 6 April youth who were arrested a couple of days ago for spraying "ElBaradei 2011" graffiti in several Cairo neighborhoods over the past few weeks, feeling they made themselves easy targets. But he had his own thought for viral marketing: he has made and distributed ink stamps with the ElBaradei campaign logo and told me the story of this restaurant owner who, at the end of the day, stamps all of his cash with the stamp. The idea is to get money circulating to advertise the campaign.
What is not clear is what's next: will ElBaradei start campaigning immediately — not the presidency, but rather for constitutional change? Will he try to recruit opinion shapers and politicians? What does he have in mind as a way to implement what he's calling for? Will he go out and visit different places in Egypt, make public appearances, or stay aloof as a symbol rather than a politician? I guess we'll find out soon enough.
One note of interest: Youssef is the son of Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based former Muslim Brother and perhaps the most influential Sunni thinker of our time. He doesn't like to be associated with his father (and probably won't be happy reading this), and I think he leans to the left rather than Islamism. He's been active in political circles at least since the invasion of Iraq, and was an early Kifaya backer. He's an impressive figure, very serious-minded and conscious of the limitations he operates under and what he needs to do get traction on the ground for his campaign. He seems to have learned lessons from the Kifaya importance and is adamant about the importance of getting ordinary people (rather than intellectuals) joining the campaign. He's done great work recruiting prominent personalities such as Alaa al-Aswany (who recently wrote an article in al-Shorouk urging people to welcome ElBaradei) to publicize it. His father could end up being a liability, and that would be a shame: Youssef deserves a lot of the credit for getting people excited about ElBaradei's return, and points out that ElBaradei announced his interest in returning to Egypt and competing for the presidency (or changing the political system only two days after they launched their campaign to draft him.
I will be posting updates from the airport on Twitter and may post here too. Stay tuned.
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