The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged baradei
Baheyya: ElBaradei is a wildcard

"Please God..."

One more ElBaradei link: Baheyya has woken from her recent slumber (first post since mid-October!) has given her take on the man:

Perhaps the scariest thing for Mubarak, wife, and son is that ElBaradei’s social democratic centrism, liberalism, and personal air of gravitas is rapidly forming him a constituency inside and outside Egypt. Like any dictator, the purpose of Mubarak’s existence is to snuff out the bottom-up formation of constituencies around rival groups or individuals. So far, Mubarak has succeeded in blocking or containing the growth of constituencies around challengers. Because elections are the time when constituency-building happens, they’ve always constituted an annoying but ultimately manageable nuisance for him. When the Ikhwan’s constituency-building threatened the parliamentary majority of Mubarak’s party in 2005, state violence was at the ready to strike at both voters and candidates. When Ayman Nour’s unexpected constituency-building in 2005 threatened to embarrass Mubarak, he mobilized his media and legal machine to smear Nour and put him safely behind bars. These tried and true tactics won’t work with ElBaradei. I’m going to enjoy sitting back and watching how the Mubaraks deal with this wildcard.

I couldn't agree more with the piece (and the cartoons she illustrates the piece with are great). Especially the fact that, as I've written before, ElBaradei is shining a spotlight on the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections that will make the usual shenanigans a lot more difficult. 

The Unpolitician

This blog does not want to become "All ElBaradei, All The Time" but the last week has been a distinctively single-issue one in Egypt. I have a piece in the National newspaper's Review supplement taking a more critical look at the ElBaradei campaign than I might have so far.

Prior to his return and the first few days of media blitzkrieg that accompanied it, I thought it was important to note that ElBaradei's conditional candidacy for the presidency was important and could have consequences. I still think it is important, but there are more questions being raised about whether ElBaradei will be a flash in the pan or a constant thorn in the side of the Egyptian regime in the next few years. This piece has two parts: one looking at what ElBaradei represents, the other looking at his apparent reluctance to get into politics proper (and of course this may still change) tackles both the promise of ElBaradei's ideas and where he is appears reluctant to thread. 

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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The end of the beginning

I'm driving back from Cairo airport and writing this on a friend's iPhone as my blackberry has run out of juice. We're headed for a comedy night at the culture wheel on Zamalek. It'll be a nice break after six hours of waiting for Mohamed Elbaradei and constant tweeting.
Elbaradei chose not to speak tonight but will be appearing on many tv shows in the next few days. I got a little more insight on what he may be thinking and what his supporters might do next.
But that will have to wait for tomorrow.

The Campaign for ElBaradei

Poster for the ElBaradei Campaign

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 ElBaradei Campaign's ink stampThe 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.

Abdel Rahman YoussefOne 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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