What does ElBaradei want?

After spending most of yesterday at Cairo Airport covering Mohamed ElBaradei's return to Egypt, it's worth taking a step back from the infectious enthusiasm of his supporters and listening more carefully to what they say — and what people close to ElBaradei believe he intends to do.

A member of the ElBaradei family sporting this great home-made T-shirt.But before I do that, I think it's fair to note that yesterday's welcoming committee was a success. There were over 1,000 people at the airport, the story got covered everywhere, and it has legs. It energized his campaign, even if many were disappointed that ElBaradei did not speak at the airport. I think he probably should have, but the conditions there were not good: supporters and journalists were crushing each other, there was no platform, and too many people to be controlled easily. One important reason for the success of the welcome was its timing. I think it might be no coincidence that ElBaradei decided to return to Egypt on the day that Egypt faced its Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council and the day that Barack Obama met with Egyptian democracy activists Gamal Eid and Bahai Eddin Hassan. There was a lot of international attention on the question of democracy and human rights in Egypt that day. The regime's propaganda may have scared off some (newspapers had reported on-the-spot fines of LE1,000 — $182 — and massive security presence, both of which were untrue) but plenty turned out and a repressive approach was simply not possible.

Back to the ElBaradei campaign's potential. The sense that I get is that most of his prominent supporters are focusing on the potential for ElBaradei to be a symbol, a loudspeaker for the Egyptian opposition's near-universal agreement on what needs to be changed in the country: an end to emergency laws and the police state, constitutional reform to make politics competitive, and an end to the Mubarak family's role in politics. It's not much more complicated than that, and the question of whether ElBaradei will, or even can, run for president really seems secondary to them. The same can be said for ElBaradei himself from the interviews he's given so far: he systematically downplays the prospect of his candidacy in favor of talking about systemic problems, going just short of criticizing Mubarak directly.

Although there's obviously a lot of support for the ElBaradei campaign on and off-line, there are also critics. I'll skip over those who want to defend the regime, particularly as they made fools of themselves in the early attacks on ElBaradei in December, although among pro-regime individuals I think the writings of al-Ahram chairman Abdel Moneim Said may give us the most reasonable criticism of the ElBaradei campaign, especially when compared to the reprehensible attacks of his colleague, al-Ahram editor-in-chief Osama Saraya.

Among ordinary folk and a few politicos, there are a few common issues that do come up.

First, there are the people who don't like ElBaradei, his record at the IAEA, find him boring, too close to the regime, too aloof from Egypt's problems, etc. That's their right, although I think these people miss the potential transformative power of the campaign behind him — more about that below.

Second, there are those who dismiss the whole thing as ridiculous. An American academic friend — someone extremely knowledgeable about Egyptian politics — wrote in an email discussion with a few other experts recently:

These days people seem to be placing their hopes in miraculous changes that defy all prior empirical experience.

I would place expectations of Obama pursuing progressive policies and speculation about El-Baradei contesting the Egyptian presidency in that category.

Well, of course: Egypt has been a military and police dictatorship since 1952, its current president has been able to stay in power for 29 years, political activity is extremely limited and comes at a high cost for those who engage in it, and there is basically no history of a successful popular campaign to bring about political change. Obviously ElBaradei has at best a long shot chance at making a difference. The question is then whether it's worth trying at all, and whether the campaign around him may have some useful purpose, such as spreading the call for democratic reform, embarrassing the regime by raising the costs of electoral fraud and repression. Some of this type of criticism is basically cynicism, a position that is hardly constructive and offers no solutions.

Thirdly, there are those who wonder whether ElBaradei wants, or can, run for president. They have focused on the presidency as the goal. But this is misplaced: the man himself has said he's not so much interested in the presidency as changing the political framework. From Foreign Policy's interview:

What I've said is that I would not even consider running for president unless there is the proper framework for a free and fair election -- and that is still the major question mark in Egypt. I don't believe the conditions are in place for free and fair elections. In fact, I just sent an article to an Egyptian newspaper today setting out what needs to be done before I could consider it. These guarantees [include] an independent judicial review, international oversight, and equal opportunity for media coverage -- there is a lot that needs to be in place -- and of course, the ability to run as an independent. The Constitution is written in a way that I cannot run unless I join an existing party, which, to me, is not how a democratic system works.

I would like to be, at this time, an agent to push Egypt toward a more democratic and transparent regime, with all of its implications for the rest of the Arab world. If I am able to do that, I will be very happy because we need to achieve democracy in the Arab world as fast as we can. Democracy meaning empowering people, democracy meaning a proper economic and social development, tolerance -- it means building up modern societies.

The point for ElBaradei and his supporters is widening the debate about the current political environment, and in essence destabilizing Egyptian politics by spreading a coherent attack on the system. I think Brian Whitaker captures this well here:

Whether or not he runs for the presidency next year (and the rules constructed by the Mubarak regime probably mean he can't) is really beside the point. What ElBaradei can do, if he plays it right, is breathe fresh life into Egyptian politics and get people talking about change in new ways.

But few analysts have taken this logic a step further. In my opinion, the entire point of the ElBaradei campaign is to gain enough symbolic / moral capital to force a change from the regime through a combination of public pressure, international concern and leveraging whatever regime splits that exist. Ultimately, I'm sure some of his supporters hope, the aim is to create enough disturbance to encourage force majeure: an intervention, most probably by the military, to reset the current political system. In other words, a coup. This has long been the position of some Kifaya leaders as the most desirable outcome of the current Egyptian political crisis, although it's very unlikely that it could take place under Hosni Mubarak. Furthermore, ElBaradei's pseudo-candidacy may have already forced one alternative to a Gamal candidacy in 2011, if this report [Ar] that Hosni Mubarak is likely to run again in 2011 is to be believed.

This brings us to the fourth and final point: does ElBaradei really want to fight? This is the most interesting criticism of his campaign, that he seems ambivalent about what he will do. The feeling I got talking to people around him was that the plan is not for him to go traveling up and down the country holding political rallies. There does not seem to be a strategy beyond this week's blitz of television interviews. The onus will be on his supporters to widen and deepen the campaign. As his brother Ali told me, "I think he's already done his fair share, others now have to stand up." In a sense, ElBaradei's cutting criticism of the current regime was already a big step — he could have retired blissfully in southern France without getting himself, and potentially his family, in trouble. But some argue he needs to be a leader, not just a figurehead. I think we still have to wait and see how much time and effort he will devote to helping the campaign and using his contacts to rally other prominent Egyptians, including those inside the regime, to his campaign.

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