Mohammed ElBaradei has always advocated a vision of a different politics in Egypt. He may have been an ineffective politician, but he has also been consistently decent and upright.
ElBaradei chooses truth over Egypt's still-tainted politics
When Mohammed ElBaradei returned to Egypt after the end of his tenure at the International Atomic Energy Agency, he had a simple mission: tell truth to power. Despite a campaign to draft him to run against President Hosni Mubarak, he refused to participate in any election under the undemocratic conditions that prevailed. On Saturday, he chose to take the same path, citing the lack of a democratic framework in military-run Egypt.
In a statement to the press and a YouTube video put up by his campaign, he explained that as much as he has held high hopes for the revolution that overthrew Mr Mubarak, he cannot participate in elections held under the military-run transition process. "To achieve complete freedom, we must work outside the formal channels," Mr ElBaradei said, looking sad but nonetheless determined.
Mr ElBaradei's statement will be interpreted by his detractors as an ungraceful acknowledgement that his presidential campaign is going nowhere, and that an Egypt that overwhelmingly voted for Islamists is unlikely to elect a mild-mannered social democrat. Some might even accuse him of bad faith, using the excuse of the military's excesses and a haphazard transition to cover up for the poor political prospects of Egyptian liberals like himself.
Even so, the moment is reminiscent of how, in 2010, he had shattered a taboo. Back then, he was almost alone among Egypt's establishment grandees to dare criticise Mr Mubarak. By preferring to launch a national campaign for change rather than compete against the deposed president in a rigged system, he refused to legitimise the regime and was one of several factors that contributed to the country being ripe for an uprising. And back then, of course, that worked - even if Mr ElBaradei had never advocated such an uprising.
Mr ElBaradei's decision comes at a crucial juncture in Egypt's transition. Even if Egyptians are for the most part tired of protests, impatience with the military is also rising. The generals who forced Mr Mubarak out and have run the country since last February have been incompetent managers, authoritarian rulers and, perhaps most of all, shameless liars. There is a campaign now underway ahead of the anniversary of the January 25 uprising called "kazeboon" - Arabic for "liars" - that is bringing projectors to neighbourhoods to show that the military is carrying out acts of violence against protesters very much like those that took place under Mr Mubarak during the 18 days of the uprising.
That this is required at all is an indictment of the restrictions of the transition period, during which the military had imposed severe censorship on the media and carried out human rights abuses that in some respects are worse than those under Mr Mubarak. Perhaps more symbolically important is that the Emergency Law that the security services used so ruthlessly is still in place and has been reinforced with military decrees that murdered liberty.
Egypt does seem today to be at a crossroads. On the one hand there are the Muslim Brotherhood and the political parties that have participated in poorly organised elections. These argue that the new parliament, which will hold its first session just two days before the January 25 anniversary, has a legitimacy that will counter that of the military, and that the transition process is nearing an end, with the full transfer of power to civilians to take place by July when a new president will have been elected.
They - notably the Brotherhood, which controls nearly half of parliament - are eager for calm to allow this transition to finish, and will be negotiating whatever power the military will retain over the next few weeks. The worst fear of Egypt's liberals, who do not trust the Brotherhood, is that the Islamists will collude with the generals, perhaps creating a situation like Sudan in the late 1980s - a disaster scenario if ever there was one.
On the other hand are those who believe that almost all the revolutions' demands remain unmet, that the army must be stripped of its exceptional power and impunity, and that civilians must take the lead for the remainder of the transition. These are the same people who hope to spark a "second revolution" on the anniversary of the uprising, and have contempt for the Brotherhood's apparent focus on stability and readiness to compromise with the generals, notably by promising them immunity from prosecution.
But Mr ElBaradei does not really fit within either of these two world views. While he rejects the current transition framework that would rush to create a new constitution in the next few months, he is not explicitly calling for a second revolution and stresses the need to continue peaceful demonstrations - not overthrow the military regime.
His tactic is once again one of delegitimisation, lending his voice to the many who no longer see the military as having the moral authority to carry out the transition and do not trust the Muslim Brotherhood to negotiate, on the basis that it is now the dominant political force and controls parliament, with the generals.
From the very beginning of his arrival on Egypt's political scene, Mr ElBaradei has advocated a vision of a different politics. He may have been an ineffective politician, but he has also been consistently decent and upright. For the past year, his ideas for a civilian-run transition, in which the writing of a new constitution would be a deliberative rather than rushed affair, have been rejected by the military and ignored by politicians.
Whatever one thinks of his decision not to contest the presidency, he is at least consistent. The conditions for a fair race, at a time when various "deep state" candidates are being rumoured and a grand bargain with the generals said to be underway, have not been met. It is up to the Egyptian people to decide whether, this time, the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.
Issandr El Amrani is a writer and analyst based in Cairo. He blogs atwww.arabist.net