x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

ElBaradei wants to be Egypt's president, but only if he can reform the country

Despite efforts to discredit him and his reluctance to run for office unless the elections are transparent, Mohammed ElBaradei remains a hugely popular figure among Egyptians, coming top in a Facebook 'presidential election'.

Mohammed ElBaradei, the Egyptian opposition leader and former UN nuclear watchdog chief, is protected on March 19, 2011 as hundreds of Islamists hurled stones and shoes at him as he went to cast his ballot in Cairo in a referendum.
Mohammed ElBaradei, the Egyptian opposition leader and former UN nuclear watchdog chief, is protected on March 19, 2011 as hundreds of Islamists hurled stones and shoes at him as he went to cast his ballot in Cairo in a referendum.

The Nobel Peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei sometimes gives the impression that he will run for president only if Egypt's 45 million voters beg him to.

It is not because the country's leading pro-democracy campaigner does not want to run. Mr ElBaradei wants to run but has said he will do so only when he is certain that the far-reaching reforms he and other like-minded activists have been campaigning for are introduced. He also wants enough guarantees in place to assure that the political process will be fair and transparent.

Parliamentary elections have been scheduled for September followed by a presidential election either this year or early in 2012, according to the timetable announced by the country's ruling military.

But Mr ElBaradei, like many in his secular pro-democracy camp, has serious reservations about the military's blueprint for a transition to an elected government and has been unhappy about the way the generals have been running the country since Hosni Mubarak resigned.

"I don't want to run for president just to be president. I want to reform the country," Mr ElBaradei said this month. "I want to run. But my red line is I don't want to be part of a stage setting."

It is surprising that Mr ElBaradei, who inspired many of the young people behind the uprising that toppled Mr Mubarak in February, has yet to enter the race. He is missing out on much of the media coverage other candidates are enjoying.

But Mr ElBaradei, the former director of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, seems unruffled by the air time his rivals are getting and, instead, seems to be quietly preparing for his campaign.

His credentials are impeccable. He has the rare distinction of being an Egyptian public figure untainted by corruption. He also has the ability to connect with young people, which is not a small matter considering that more than half of Egypt's estimated 82 million people are under 35.

In many ways, it speaks of the man's resilience that he is a likely front runner after all the dirty tricks the Mubarak regime had used to discredit him. He had been labelled an "American agent" and a friend of Israel. Photographs of his daughter in a swimsuit or drinking what appeared to be an alcoholic beverage with her British husband were published on the internet. He was reported to have a foreign passport, which is false.

These are serious matters in a country where animosity towards America and Israel is deeply entrenched and is so religiously conservative that women who dress fashionably, even on the beach, are viewed as being loose.

Mr ElBaradei, a quiet and cordial international law expert who is nearly 70, has taken time off recently to write a "bill of rights" that he says will lay down the rights and obligations for all Egyptians. He will be meeting with representatives from ministries, youth organisations and rural areas to acquaint himself with problems Egyptians want fixed.

"I am working with everyone," he declared in defence of the long spells he has been spending away from the media limelight. "We are laying out a vision for things like education, health care and housing, but we may be guilty of not communicating enough with the media to let everyone know what we are doing."

Mr ElBaradei has often been accused of not knowing enough about his own country because of the many years he had spent abroad, first as an Egyptian diplomat and later with the United Nations. He has also been accused of being elitist.

Trying to debunk the criticism, he has been seeking to assert his street credibility. He boasted recently that when his aides asked for volunteers, they received 15,000 applications in four days and that his Facebook page has 400,000 members.

All this, he said, was done with little or no money.

He demonstrated his appeal as a serious candidate in an internet-based vote launched by the military on Sunday. By Tuesday, nearly 100,000 people voted. Mr El Baradei won about 35 per cent of the votes, while his closest rival, the Islamic thinker Saleem Al Awa, won about 20 per cent and the former prime minister Ahmed Shafeeq 12 per cent. The online survey listed 18 possible candidates.

Mr ElBaradei, though, has not been the military's favourite politician. He has been harshly critical of their track record since February.

He has said that the military's failure to promptly place stalwarts of the Mubarak regime in protective custody meant that the corrupt among them had ample time to smuggle their money abroad or launder it locally. He has maintained that it is a mystery to him that security has not been restored in the country more than four months after Mr Mubarak's removal.

"They don't exercise transparency," he said of the military. "We are in a random situation when it comes to the political future of Egypt."

He has also been campaigning for a new constitution to be drafted before the parliamentary elections in September, a date that many consider to be too soon for new parties that arose from the uprising to organise and compete against the moneyed Islamist political machines.

The next parliament will be required to appoint a panel of experts to draft a new constitution. A chamber dominated by Islamists will produce a constitution with an Islamist slant that may not be acceptable to secularists, liberals and leftists among the Muslim majority and minority Christians.

The military has yet to say where it stands on calls for delaying the elections, but it has been adamant that no new constitution would be drafted before the vote. Its main argument is that the constitutional amendments adopted by more than 70 per cent of voters in a March referendum reflected the will of the people.

The nine amendments effectively give the next parliament a mandate to draft a new constitution. They limit the presidency to two four-year terms, ease requirements for running in presidential elections, especially for independent candidates - and provide judicial supervision of elections.

But critics maintain that, at the time of the March vote, Egyptians felt insecure because of the grim economy and rising crime. A "yes" vote was sold to them by Islamists and others as a way to restore stability.