CAIRO // Mohammed ElBaradei's return to Egypt three months ago reinvigorated the country's opposition movement and generated widespread optimism that change was coming. While hopes are still high, Mr ElBaradei's prolonged absences from the public scene since his return have many Egyptians wondering where exactly their new-found leader is and what he is doing.
Mr ElBaradei, who has said he hopes to run as an independent candidate in the next presidential elections, has been spending increasingly long periods abroad. His latest visit appeared to be the Cameroonian capital Yaounde, where he delivered a speech to a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the African country's independence. At the end of April, he visited the United States to lecture about nuclear non-proliferation and the future of democracy in Egypt. There are also reports he went to Latin America and maybe Europe.
All the senior figures form his entourage are currently in the United States attending a conference about Egypt's political future and planning a protest in New York tomorrow. None responded to attempts to contact them. However, a source in his campaign office said that they expected Mr ElBaradei to return to Egypt today and soon visit the southern province of Aswan, and maybe Alexandria. "I really believe that his presence in Egypt is so crucial at the moment, as he saw how he was welcomed and how many people are pinning their hopes on him," said Waleed Rashed, 26, a banker, and one of the founders of Mr ElBaradei's Association for Change in Qatar.
"And he should be more involved in the daily activities that are taking place in the street, like political and labour protests, its not enough that he issues statements or responds on Twitter from abroad." Ammar Ali Hassan, a political sociologist and independent analyst, said the concerns from Mr ElBaradei's supporters about his extended absence are "justified and legitimate". "His long absence harms the Egyptian national movement seeking change, hurts his image and the momentum of his struggle," Mr Hassan said.
He added, however, that Mr ElBaradei had international commitments before he returned to Egypt in February and that he did not expect to become the political reform leader he became. "He didn't expect the role the people designated to him. He wanted to play a role in political reform, but didn't expect people to cling to him like that. He should have adapted his schedule and international commitments according to his new role. He should have been around, for instance, when emergency laws were extended two weeks ago," Mr Hassan said.
Mr ElBaradei, 67, took the country by storm when he returned in February after 30 years abroad. Hundreds welcomed him at the airport while large crowds greeted him on two subsequent tours, one in Cairo and another one in the northern city of Mansoura. About 250,000 people have joined a Facebook group supporting his possible bid for the presidency. Mr ElBaradei responded to people who had called for him to run for president in elections next year with demands of political reform, including a constitutional amendment so independents like him can run. He has also called for Egyptians abroad to be allowed to vote and judicial and international monitors for the elections, which so far have been rejected by the regime.
The current president, Hosni Mubarak, 82, has held power since 1981, but has not yet said if he would run in the elections next year. For the past two months, he has been recovering from gallbladder and intestine growth operations. On Wednesday, during a trip to Italy, his first outside of Egypt since his surgery in March, Mr Mubarak said that only God could decide who would lead the Arab world's most populous nation of more than 80 million people.
"Who knows? Who knows? Only God knows who will be my successor," Mr Mubarak said in English when asked by a journalist at a joint press conference with the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi whom would he like to succeed him. When asked about Mr ElBaradei at a press conference in Germany in March, Mr Mubarak said: "Egypt does not need a national hero because the whole people are heroes." Unlike his predecessors, he did not appoint a vice president, and many Egyptians assume his son Gamal, 46, is being groomed to be his successor.
Gamal, a former investment banker, lacks the military background of Egypt's four presidents since the 1952 military coup, and is seen as aloof, surrounding himself with rich businessmen, and rising swiftly in the ruling National Democratic Party, headed by Mubarak senior. For some, however, Mr ElBaradei does not represent Egypt's great hope for change. "I don't see him as the opposition figure that his followers are portraying him to be," said Wael Abbas, 35, a blogger who runs the popular website, Egyptian Awareness. "He is just an international employee, not an activist; he was never imprisoned, exiled, he's not Nelson Mandela nor Lenin.
"He and his followers seem to be fans of sitting in front of computer screens, and we've never seen change achieved this way, people here are desperate for the Messiah, and waiting for divine intervention, and they are going to be really disappointed and frustrated." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org