Cook on ElBaradei

Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations weighs in on the ElBaradei phenomenon in the house mag. The first part looks at what ElBaradei has done so far and the dilemma he presents the Mubarak regime, and then Cook tackles the potential for real change ElBaradei represents and how the US should react:

But it has become clear that although it continues to try to cut ElBaradei down to size, the regime recognizes the difficulties of completely marginalizing him. In fact, Mubarak and his advisers may let ElBaradei agitate, organize, and even run for president. An ElBaradei candidacy could actually help the regime in one important way: without being totally disingenuous, Mubarak and others in government could use the existence of a credible presidential contender as a demonstration of Egypt’s political reforms.

At the same time, an ElBaradei candidacy would put enormous strains on Egypt’s historically fractious opposition, with the resulting splits playing into Mubarak’s hands. Not to mention that Egypt’s Interior Ministry is well versed in the dark arts of vote rigging -- though outright manipulation would be a more difficult endeavor if ElBaradei indeed proves to be a widely compelling candidate. The regime in Cairo needs to look no further than Tehran’s June 2009 electoral debacle to understand the risks involved.

The ElBaradei phenomenon has led to inevitable questions about what Washington should do. Some observers, including the editorial page of The Washington Post, have argued that ElBaradei’s return has created an environment in which the United States can play a positive role in advancing the cause of reform if the Obama administration approaches the ElBaradei “boomlet” with “less caution.” Such statements suggest that the Egyptian public cannot help itself and has no agency, interests, or politics of its own, thereby requiring Washington to intervene. This is demonstrably untrue, making such a policy prescription unwise.

Further, Egypt’s close relationship with the United States has become a critical and negative factor in Egyptian politics. The opposition has used these ties to delegitimize the regime, while the government has engaged in its own displays of anti-Americanism to insulate itself from such charges. If ElBaradei actually has a reasonable chance of fostering political reform in Egypt, then U.S. policymakers would best serve his cause by not acting strongly. Somewhat paradoxically, ElBaradei’s chilly relationship with the United States as IAEA chief only advances U.S. interests now.

It is not surprising that Mubarak cannot accurately read Egyptian society’s political desires and hopes. He is elderly, isolated, and has been out of touch for some time. Contrary to his recent declaration, Egyptians are looking for a hero. And they no longer want the false heroics of a discredited line of military officers. Instead, many seem deeply attracted to a bespectacled lawyer who appears to have the courage of his convictions. The ElBaradei sensation may end up being little more than a minor diversion in the eventual ascension of Gamal Mubarak to his father’s post, but it has revealed more than ever how thoroughly hollow and illegitimate the regime and its myths have become.

Several things to keep in mind:

  1. The idea that ElBaradei might give a cover of legitimacy to the regime is wrong-headed: he is building a broad coalition, the presidential elections are not his goal, spreading awareness of the need for reform is.
  2. I think Cook's reference to Iran's election is very apt: the upcoming parliamentary elections are going to be fraudulent with absolute certainty — they could not be otherwise when the last few years' elections were so horribly flawed, and when the Egyptian regime has reduced judicial oversight, opposes international monitors and appears to be moving towards reducing civil society monitoring.
  3. I agree with Cook the US does not need to support ElBaradei. But it needs to actually speak out on the conduct of elections and the issue of monitors. This is crucial and self-evident because a) the US has invested in election training, and therefore should follow through and b) the Obama administration's downplaying of elections in its vision of democracy, while perhaps well-intended, will be seen as an invitation to fraud by regimes such as Egypt's. Elections aren't everything, but technically they are at the center of the democratic process.
  4. Cook is absolutely spot on in the last paragraph: the ElBaradei campaign is delegitimizing the regime, but it is only the latest thing to do so, starting at least with the Kifaya movement. This is how Kifaya — long ridiculed by many analysts — has been crucial and historic.

It was interesting to see that ElBaradei attended Friday prayers at al-Azhar yesterday, it's a perfect move to deflect the "Westernized elite" accusation against him, which is Egyptian culture wars code for "he's not a devout Muslim" or "he has a anti-Islam secularist agenda." His challenge is to assert authority and authenticity without resorting to crass populism, something rarely seen in Egyptian politics.

One more think: I don't know when Cook wrote this piece, but he writes about the Facebook group for ElBaradei:

By late February, Egyptian bloggers and journalists were reporting that one thousand people were joining ElBaradei’s Facebook page every ten minutes. This story is surely apocryphal, but it is nonetheless worth noting that ElBaradei currently has 82,069 Facebook supporters, compared to Gamal Mubarak’s 6,583.  

Actually, right now the Facebook group has over 203,000 members.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.