Egypt’s Undeclared Change Candidate: The Symbolic Appeal of Mohamed ElBaradei

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Ian Siperco

Head of Practice, Middle East and North Africa, Riskline Political and Security Risk Analysis

In a likely indication of what to expect in the 2011 presidential elections, the results of Egypt’s Shura Council mid-term polls held in early June 2010 marked a tightening of political space for the opposition, even by Egyptian standards. Though NGOs and international monitors filed the predictable list of grievances, and a presumably predetermined number of ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) Shura members lost their seats to maintain a façade of democracy, the largest opposition party in the country was left without a single seat in the Upper House. Fortunately for sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Shura Council – which has 264 members, of whom the president appoints one-third – has limited legislative powers. The significance of the vote instead lies in developments that hint at a growing sea change in the orientation of the country’s opposition alliances. 

Less than 24 hours after polling ended, the Brotherhood’s leadership council announced plans to openly support a signature-drive campaign for reform launched by Nobel laureate-turned-possible-presidential-candidate Mohamed ElBaradei. The former U.N. atomic watchdog has emerged as a surprise independent player in Egyptian politics. His vague commitments to greater pluralism and better governance have proven non-ideological enough to temporarily unite Egypt’s notoriously fractious and long-moribund political opposition in a loose “anything-but-Mubarak” coalition. 

Weak, cross-ideological partnerships have a long and sordid history in Egypt. In the last decade alone, the opposition has at least partially coalesced under half a dozen banners including Kefaya, the National Coalition for Reform, the April 6 movement, the National Gathering for Democratic Change, the United National Front for Change and the Egyptian Campaign Against Inheritance. ElBaradei’s National Association for Change lacks both the constituents and the overt political ambitions of many of these groups, but it’s been a long time since the country had a relatively weak president and a potentially potent catalyst for anti-establishment protest. 

For the Muslim Brotherhood, supporting ElBaradei’s informal coalition provides an attractive means of remaining relevant while putting its own ideological agenda on hold, to survive a renewed government crackdown on the organization’s leadership. For ElBaradei, a dangerous flirtation with Egypt’s main Islamist movement makes sense only in the context of a numbers game. Despite being formally banned and routinely persecuted by the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood is a massive organization that controls one-fifth of the seats in Egypt’s Lower House and wields considerable political clout. As an elite outfit with little grassroots support, ElBaradei’s National Association for Change seeks to benefit from the Brotherhood’s numbers while excluding its representatives from top-level discussions. 

Competing ideologies suggest that the marriage of convenience will be short-lived. Nevertheless, it risks alienating the few remaining officials in the NDP and military willing to dialogue with ElBaradei’s movement. The NAC’s relationship with Egyptian security forces has been strained since the group issued a series of derisive statements on Egypt’s Gaza border policy, reportedly under the influence of a cadre of ex- Kefaya supporters. 

For this and many other reasons, ElBaradei’s presidential bid is an exceedingly long shot. Even if he were to set aside his reticence to campaign as a politician in a hostile and deliberately depoliticized system, Egypt’s Emergency Law would likely bar ElBaradei from formally running, as would the constitution’s convoluted candidacy requirements. 

Perhaps seeking to avoid the treatment of Ayman Nour after his el-Ghad party was granted license in October 2004, ElBaradei has said he would run for president only if the constitution were changed to permit fair competition from independent candidates. Article 76 currently prohibits individuals who have not occupied a senior leadership position in a political party for a year from running for president, making it almost impossible for an independent to get on the ballot. 

But Mubarak has little incentive to acquiesce to demands for the removal of restrictions that play an important role in the regime’s political war against the Muslim Brotherhood. And even if the regime is convinced of the need to liberalize the political arena, it is by no means clear that the former IAEA chief is capable of passing electoral muster. ElBaradei’s absence from Egyptian politics since the late 1970s has deprived him of a reliable constituency. He has no grassroots or vanguard organization to work with, and there are few indicators of support outside of Cairo and a number of scattered expatriate communities in the United States and the Gulf region. While it’s true that groups of online ElBaradei activists reach into the tens of thousands, it has yet to be proven that domestic support can be rallied for demonstrations anywhere near the scale of the April 6 youth-movement protests of 2008. 

Whether or not ElBaradei has yet made the realistic assessment that competing directly against Hosni Mubarak is a losing battle, the question of Egypt’s political future is exceedingly unlikely to be decided anywhere but within the inner regime. In any case, a president with the vague policies and unsustainably disparate support that characterize ElBaradei’s embryonic movement could seriously destabilize Egypt. 

But by pushing for credible reform as an independent and as-yet-undomesticated member of the opposition, ElBaradei can move beyond the current hype and provide a non-ideological opposition rallying point as Egypt considers its post-Mubarak future.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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