When Mohammed ElBaradei returned to Egypt after nearly 30 years of absence in February 2010, a large crowd of Egyptians awaited him at the arrivals lounge of Cairo's international airport, carrying signs of support for the Nobel laureate. Government newspapers had in the preceding days issued reports that police would not allow any persons to enter the airport without a ticket, and that any demonstration would be repressed and its participants arrested. Yet, ElBaradei supporters turned out in droves, urging him to challenge then-president Hosni Mubarak in the next elections. This was just one of many signs that Egyptians were looking for an alternative to Mubarak, whom they finally deposed a year later.
Only a few months before his return to Egypt, from Vienna, where he was about to end his three-term stint as director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), ElBaradei had declared that, should the appropriate reforms be made to Egypt's political system, he would run as a presidential candidate.
The government responded to this challenge, the first public attack on the Mubarak presidency by a person of such international stature, by instructing the press it controlled to first ignore him and then attack him as a political neophyte whose long stint abroad made him, somehow, not a real Egyptian. Later, as the propaganda campaign to discredit him grew, ElBaradei would be accused of having been, during his tenure at the IAEA, at once an agent of Iran, an enabler of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, and a hypocrite who ignored Israel's large nuclear arsenal while scrutinising the alleged plans of Arab and Muslim countries. ElBaradei, according to some, was a puppet of the most unlikely of allies.
In retrospect, his last decade at the IAEA was good preparation for the campaign of slander the Egyptian regime unleashed against him. In The Age of Deception, the mild-mannered ElBaradei calmly recounts not just the tumultuous history of recent nuclear diplomacy, but also the controversial role he often played in the debates over Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea's alleged or real efforts at obtaining nuclear technology and weaponising it. The Bush administration - or at least individuals within it (the vice president Dick Cheney and John Bolton, the ambassador to the UN, come out as particularly bad, Colin Powell, the secretary of state, and the national security adviser Condoleezza Rice less so) - not only manipulated media against him, accusing of sympathies towards the dictatorships of Iraq and Iran, but tried to expel him from the IAEA and regularly withheld important information from the agency. Many times, ElBaradei found himself stuck in the middle of international disputes and scapegoated by both sides:
"Early on, I often got the feeling that the Arab world - and many westerners - expected me, as an Egyptian Arab and a Muslim, to show bias in favour of Iraq. Of course, I also heard that I was being tough on Iraq to prove my lack of bias. My only bias was that of an international civil servant: an insistence on independence, professionalism and treating all parties with equal respect."
Although ElBaradei's views are fairly well known among those who followed the last decade of nuclear diplomacy, he reiterates them in this book lest there be any doubt. He was adamantly opposed to the invasion of Iraq even as the agency came under extreme pressure to find evidence of a non-existent nuclear programme. He could not intervene on the matter of Israel's nuclear arsenal because it is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, although he raised the issue nonetheless. On Iran, he felt that Tehran was ready to negotiate on its nuclear programme in exchange for economic and political concessions from the West, but that mistrust reigned and the domestic politics of Iran and the United States perpetually vexed a resolution.
In one particularly memorable incident, shortly before he meets the president, George W Bush, Cheney informs him matter-of-factly that if he doesn't lean towards the US position on Iraq, the administration will personally discredit him in the media. Bush comes across as affable but not particularly sharp - in meetings, they talk about baseball. At a later point, ElBaradei states his belief that the former president and his administration should face charges of war crimes at the International Criminal Court and is criminally responsibly for manipulating the WMD dossier to provide a pretext for the war.
ElBaradei often has more sympathy for the officials and nuclear scientists of countries such Iraq, Libya or Iran who are trying to work with him than those of western countries, whom he often depicts as ideologues with few principles. The depressing tale of Iraq's own nuclear scientists, desperately trying to convince the Americans that the nuclear programme was dismantled in the 1990s precisely because Saddam Hussein feared it could provide a pretext for another war, is telling: even they understood that the reality mattered little in the face of the Bush administration's clamouring for a war.
Those who hoped for a biography of ElBaradei, who could yet become Egypt's first democratically elected president (although for now he trails polls), will be disappointed. The Age of Deception is more of a company man's diary, the reflections of a long-standing IAEA official who clearly has respect for the organisation and its mission of nuclear disarmament, promotion of the peaceful use of nuclear technology and proliferation control. But, as well as provide an insider's narrative of some two decades of nuclear diplomacy (some of which has already been covered elsewhere) it also highlights its author's own worldview.
ElBaradei, a lawyer by training, believes with a quiet passion in multilateralism and the strict application of international law. He dislikes brinkmanship, believes patient dialogue is the best way of resolving differences between nations, and, as his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech showed, he believes that issues like disarmament and poverty are linked by a universal understanding of human dignity.
As such, national pride often figures in his account of the international community's (read: the West) dealings with states such as North Korea or Iran. Both sides strive to save face, have their hardliners and softliners, psychological and political constraints. Sometimes, when it comes to his birth region, the Middle East, ElBaradei seems more understanding: he advised US officials not to act with imperial arrogance or issue ultimatums. They rarely listened.
This tells us a little bit about what kind of president of Egypt ElBaradei might be. He would be a multilateralist, favour more active regional diplomacy (for instance in restoring full Egyptian-Iranian diplomatic relations), oppose military solutions to diplomatic problems, favour more distance (and push for more restraint) from the US and be much tougher on Israel. Compared with some of his competition, he is neither a populist nor a radical. His belief in the role of international institutions and the role of the civil servants who staff them is not exciting stuff, just as ElBaradei is, in person, slightly dull. He is principled and has stuck, with remarkable integrity, to the demands he made when he arrived on the Egyptian scene in early 2010. Even now, after a revolution, he insists he will only run in the presidential elections if a free and fair election is guaranteed. But instead of winning him applause, it has mostly earned him accusations of being half-hearted about running.
Even his own supporters in Egypt admit this: to counter the frequently deployed charge that ElBaradei is failing to make many Egyptians enthusiastic about his potential presidency, they recently coined a new slogan: "He may not have charisma, but he has conscience." For a country now hungry for a new, more democratic form of stability, that is in theory just what might be needed. But politics is not like international law - it allows considerably more room for irrationality and even duplicity. As an arbiter of nuclear diplomacy, with real decision-making power (and thus responsibility) out of his hands, ElBaradei could afford to take the high ground. But as a politician in a troubled country, his reluctance to get his hands dirty is unnerving.
Issandr El Amrani is a writer and analyst based in Cairo.