x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

ElBaradei gives us hope, but will that be enough?

The fromer UN atomic energy chief Mohamed Elbaradi has caused great excitement in Egypt, where many hope he will run for president.

It's been very hard to ignore, even if you're not involved in politics. Egyptians have been awaiting the return of Mohamed ElBaradei since he stepped down from his role as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency last year. Talk of whether or not he will run for president, or whether he even wants to, has been heating up the news, and given those pushing for reform an opportunity to air their grievances with the current regime in the hope that someone of such international acclaim can get things moving.

Hundreds of people went to the airport to welcome the Nobel peace laureate when he landed, in a way usually reserved for successful football players. Banners, chanting, big smiles, creative costumes - Egyptians went all out to greet the man. I've always wondered though, how much people on the street really know him - who is ElBaradei to them? Possibly another man in a suit who speaks using lovely words like democracy, reform, change ... words others have used but failed to bring into being. It was Egypt's intellectual community that was doing all the debating and organising to encourage him to dive into politics.

Dinner with a group of young Egyptian friends this week found us speaking about ElBaradei for most of the evening. Virtually all of us were excited at the prospect of his return. One journalist said she found him to be a nice man. His demeanour is of a kind and good person, and that would be change enough, she said. Another, a banker, told us how he found that ElBaradei embodied the very ideals of democracy that he was preaching during the first interview he gave to Egyptian media upon his return.

Speaking to Mona el Shazly, a blunt and sometimes aggressive talk show host, he gave her the chance to finish her questions, answered them thoughtfully and listened attentively to the callers. Even when her questions seemed irrelevant or not thought through, he gave her the benefit of the doubt and accepted the challenge of providing an answer openly. That exercise, my friend at dinner said, was a true exercise in democracy.

But while most of us were excited about all the political commotion in a country where very little happens, some were more reserved, wondering what kind of change he could really bring about. With the constitution the way it is, no one would technically be allowed to run except those in the ruling regime. ElBaradei would need to do something extraordinary - create a party, really start some serious action - to convince one friend of mine that he was capable of initiating change.

Behind all the excitement around the dinner table that night, there lurked a sense of caution. Yes, there was movement and that might mean hope, but reality was also creeping in - the fact that no one has been able to make real change in this country's politics for 30 years. So what is Mr ElBaradei capable of? Doctors, engineers, professors, authors of Egyptian descent, who have left their native land and succeeded in the West are held in high-esteem back home. People are proud that these men and women have "raised the reputation" of the country, that they have been able to compete and win against the high standards of the West.

Blame such attitudes on the residue of imperialism, perhaps, but they are real. And so the idea that ElBaradei made Egypt proud outside of Egypt plays a large role in his popularity. His international cachet, the respect he garnered at the UN and from western countries, this makes people here love him. He has made us proud, one Egyptian told me. For now, it seems to be enough. But we'll have to keep a close eye to see what it will mean for the future.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo