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Egypt’s Nuclear Option

by RANNIE AMIRI

“For someone like myself to be unable to run for president, this is a disaster. How can a constitution bar 99 percent of the people from running?”

– Former IAEA Director-General and Nobel Prize laureate Mohammad ElBaradei, in an interview with Egypt’s Dream Television, 18 February 2010.

Mohammad ElBaradei returned to a hero’s welcome and the jubilation of thousands at Cairo’s International Airport last week. Some carried signs reading, “ElBaradei is the whole nation’s hope,” and “ElBaradei for president of Egypt” while others chanted, “You can’t go back, we need you!” and “We want change!”

It must have been a foreboding scene for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Such displays are officially prohibited under the country’s Emergency Law and security forces had already warned those planning to greet ElBaradei that any unauthorized gathering would not be tolerated. Despite this, a vast cross-section of Egyptian society including the young and old, liberal and conservative, Christian and Muslim, and poor and wealthy, still showed up to cheer his homecoming.

ElBaradei’s arrival appeared to herald the beginning of campaign season as Egypt gets ready to hold a presidential ballot in 2011. Mubarak has not officially announced if he will seek re-election or not, but there is widespread belief he is grooming his son Gamal to succeed him.

With this expectation, constitutional roadblocks have already been erected to prevent someone exactly like ElBaradei from challenging him.

Egypt’s constitution was amended in 2007 to require presidential candidates to be members of a recognized party for a minimum of one year, and for that party to have existed for at least five. Independent candidates – as ElBaradei would be considered should he run – are forced to secure the endorsement of 250 members from the People’s Assembly (lower house of parliament), the Shura Council (upper house of parliament) and municipal councils. As expected, all are dominated by Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), essentially precluding independents from running.

ElBaradei thus faces a colossal, entrenched political and security infrastructure that has no appetite for an outsider’s attempt (as Egyptian media has been keen to describe it) at reform. Indeed, the nearly 30-year rule of Mubarak has not seen a single day without the cover of Emergency Law.

Enacted after President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, these laws give Mubarak’s government sweeping authority to arrest without warrant, detain without charge, censor media and curtail freedom of assembly.

ElBaradei appreciates the challenge quite well. As a result, he has positioned himself less as a presidential contender and more as a facilitator of change:

“I believe that the time has come for Egypt to make a serious move towards real democracy … This is what I am advocating and is my primary goal: creating the environment that enables the Egyptians to feel that they are in charge of their destiny.”

The question many are now asking is not whether ElBaradei will beat Gamal in 2011, but if he will even be allowed to run. He stated:

“I am ready to throw myself into Egyptian political life on the condition that there are free elections, and the first step toward that would be a constitutional amendment under which I can be a candidate and others as well.”  

In stark contrast to the conditions imposed on presidential candidates described above, ElBaradei stipulated that any bid of his would be contingent on guarantees of independent judicial review and international oversight of the election by the United Nations.

Many believe that is extremely unlikely to happen.

The strategy of Mubarak’s regime has always been to make people believe they have only two choices: the NDP (re: Mubarak) or the Muslim Brotherhood (which is banned). The last independent challenger to Mubarak, Ayman Nour, was thrown in jail on trumped up charges of forgery after he garnered seven percent of the vote in the 2005 election. Framing themselves as representing stability and continuity, Mubarak and the NDP have effectively left citizens with no real alternative.

With this in mind, ElBaradei recognized he could well be regarded as a type of “savior” and has wisely cautioned against it:

“I am worried that people have reached such a level of despair that they are waiting for one person to save them, but I would like for Egypt to save itself.”

One would assume that focusing on the responsibilities of the Egyptian people and their pressing needs (poverty, lack of access to medical care and education, ending corruption) might find a sympathetic ear. But this has certainly not been the case.

The editor of the widely-circulated government-owned daily, Al-Ahram, said ElBaradei was “ill-informed” and “an American stooge” (apparently unlike his own president). A government minister remarked that ElBaradei knew nothing of Egypt’s problems because of his time spent abroad. Even the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, possibly sensing he may draw away support, have distanced themselves from him.

An Al-Ahram columnist recently wrote, “(ElBaradei’s) rosy dreams will fade when he discovers that none of those searching for a loaf of bread … even knows his name.”

I don’t how ElBaradei would respond, but I suspect he would say it is far more important to ensure they have bread to eat than to worry about the person they got it from.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri AT yahoo DOT com.

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