Hundreds of flag-waving Egyptians greeted Mohamed ElBaradei at Cairo’s airport on Feb. 19. The former head of the United Nations atomic-energy agency was coming home to lead a movement to oust President Hosni Mubarak, and opposition leaders rallied in support.
Three months later, some activists have abandoned the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, calling him aloof, absent and out of touch. And his campaign has failed so far to pressure Mubarak into adopting new regulations allowing independent candidates, including ElBaradei, to run in next year’s election.
ElBaradei’s endeavor is “a fiasco,” said Hisham Kassem, a former newspaper publisher and member of Kifaya, a group of anti-Mubarak activists. “Everyone has his own agenda.”
If ElBaradei fails, it would be the latest in a series of unsuccessful efforts to end 28 years of one-man rule and return Egypt to democracy for the first time since 1952, when the military overthrew a constitutional monarchy.
While Mubarak supporters say his strong hand maintains stability, critics say the price has been corruption, oligarchy and persistent labor unrest in a country operating since 1981 under a state of emergency that permits arbitrary arrest, detention without trial and suppression of political associations and demonstrations.
The critics also say stability is illusory. Forty-two percent of Egyptians live in poverty, and there has been an upsurge in illegal protests, with more than 1.7 million workers participating in some 1,900 strikes and other actions between 2004 and 2008, according to the Washington-based Solidarity Center, a labor-rights group.
ElBaradei, 67, returned to Egypt after a long career abroad. He served as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna for 12 years, sharing the Nobel prize with the agency for work to prevent nuclear proliferation for military use. A former diplomat, he’s never held elected office.
“Egyptians are looking for a savior to pull them out of their misery,” Kassem said.
ElBaradei formed the National Association for Change, an umbrella group designed to pressure Mubarak, in February. He has called for term limits on the presidency and said Egyptians should boycott next year’s elections if Mubarak doesn’t change the constitution.
Under current rules, presidential candidates must be members of established parties, including Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, or be endorsed by parliament and municipal councils, all dominated by the NDP.
Grooming a Successor
Mubarak, 82 and ailing, hasn’t said if he’ll seek another six-year term. Opposition groups say he is grooming his son Gamal, 47, to succeed him, a claim both men deny.
After initial expressions of support, groups that might help channel public enthusiasm for ElBaradei into a mass movement now display little interest in joining him.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition faction, which is legally banned from politics, isn’t willing to back ElBaradei even though it agrees with his call for open elections, spokesman Ali Abdul-Fattah said.
“He doesn’t speak the language of the people, and he wants to manage things as an outsider instead of getting down to the struggle,” Abdul-Fattah said. “In any case, there is no possibility for change.”
Lawyer Ayman Nour, who ran for president in 2005 as head of the Tomorrow Party and got 7 percent of the vote, joined ElBaradei’s group initially and then split off.
ElBaradei “just showed up in February,” Nour said, adding he plans to run again in 2011. “The movement can’t be based on one personality. For instance, our party has a history. He is just an individual.”
Officially recognized parties, which have little following in Egypt, reject ElBaradei’s leadership. The socialist Tagammu Party, which was founded in 1977 and has one seat in parliament, forbade its members from joining ElBaradei’s association.
“We worked for years and now we are expected to back this phenomenon? No,” said Hussein Abdul Razek, a top official.
The April 6 Youth Movement, a collection of young people who lobby for democracy on the Internet, rallied around ElBaradei at first and now has become frustrated by his performance, said its leader Ahmed Maher.
“Time is passing, everyone’s ambitions are clashing and ElBaradei is just talking,” he said. “It’s a huge disappointment, but we still have hope.”
An ElBaradei representative, Hassan Nafaa, a Cairo University professor who coordinates the NAC, acknowledged ElBaradei must do more to mobilize support.
“Egyptian politics are complicated,” he said during a May 3 rally protesting Mubarak’s plan to add two more years to the state of emergency. “It’s hard to keep people together.”
The demonstration drew about 100 participants, who mainly spent their time debating whether to break through police lines and march on parliament or give television interviews. ElBaradei was absent, traveling in the U.S.
“We have to do better organizing; activity must go on even in ElBaradei’s absence,” Nafaa said, adding ElBaradei would soon promote civil disobedience.
A second protest, hastily convened on May 12 when Mubarak extended the emergency law, also drew about 100 demonstrators, many repeaters from May 3. ElBaradei, still abroad, Twittered that the extension was a “continuation of repression” and a “violation” of human rights.
He should spend more time in Egypt and lead demonstrations, said the youth movement’s Maher.
“We can’t have an opposition in the transit lounge,” he said.