The decision by Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner, to end his quest to become Egypt’s first president in the post-Mubarak era – a mere ten days before the country marks the first anniversary of the January 25 Revolution – has drawn diametrically opposed political reactions from both sides of the political spectrum.
The announcement by the liberal, reform-minded technocrat-turned-politician was met with relief by many proponents of the ousted Mubarak regime, who had vehemently opposed his two-year campaign to rally Egyptians against rampant corruption and in support of democracy, and who have continued to accuse him of being an agent of Israel, imperialism or Iran in their Friday rallies in honour of the deposed dictator in Cairo’s Abbassiya Square.
Other players, such as the Muslim Brotherhood – which once locked arms with the 69-year-old ElBaradei against Mubarak in the 2010 National Association for Change reform campaign, but which has now grown complacent following its recent parliamentary victories and newfound alliance with Egypt’s ruling military council – also seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
A spokesman for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party told reporters that his organisation saw ElBaradei’s decision to pull out of the looming presidential race as a “personal matter.”
However, Mohamed Radwan, a leading member of the Salafist Nour Party, which came in second in parliamentary polls, declared that ElBaradei had pulled out of the contest “because he saw that the Egyptian people voted for Islamists in the election.”
On the other hand, thousands of ElBaradei supporters – who had stoked hopes in the Nobel laureate’s ability to rally the masses to depose Mubarak and, after Mubarak’s ouster, to aid them in overcoming the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)’s apparent reluctance to cede power – expressed mixed feelings about their leader’s decision.
Some of ElBaradei’s liberal supporters, who had just been trounced in parliamentary elections by Islamist parties, saw the move as tantamount to conceding defeat to the Islamists too easily and too soon.
Shady Osama El-Ghazaly Harb, leading member of the Social Democratic Front Party and vocal ElBaradei supporter, told reporters after hearing the news that, while he respected ElBaradei personally, he disagreed with the decision to quit the race at the current juncture.
However, another ElBaradei supporter, the well-known radical writer Belal Fadl, expressed a greater degree of disappointment. “His decision to quit is based on politics and cannot be considered a revolutionary stance,” Fadl declared on Twitter. “He would not have quit the race if he knew his chances of victory were substantial.”
But other radical activists, who have increasingly seen the SCAF as the main obstacle to achieving the revolutionary goals of freedom, democracy and social justice, cheered ElBaradei’s decision to quit, describing it as “a revolutionary act.”
Alaa El-Aswany, well-known novelist, staunch ElBaradei supporter and one of the fiercest critics of the SCAF, applauded the decision, supporting ElBaradei’s assertions that Egypt’s generals “have ruled according to the old repressive methods…as if no revolution had taken place and no regime had fallen.”
El-Aswany told online newspaper Sada El-Balad that ElBaradei had refused to take part in a “farcical” play – in reference to the presidential contest – and called on others to follow his example by returning to methods of mass mobilisations aimed at pushing the revolution forward.
Supporting the rebels, stirring things up
Indeed, many of the activists who have been calling for mass demonstrations on 25 January 2012 in order to continue Egypt’s unfinished revolution felt vindicated by ElBaradei’s decision to quit the race, with many describing the move as “a major blow” to the ruling military council.
ElBaradei’s promise to march “at the front of the planned protests on 25 January,” which he issued two days after he quit the race, lent further confidence to the many activists who have been organising anti-SCAF initiatives such as the Kazeboon (“Liars”) campaign, imbuing many with the hope that ElBaradei had finally re-joined the battle for democracy.
Undoubtedly, ElBaradei’s decision to withdraw from the race has drawn positive and negative reactions at a critical juncture in Egypt’s political history.
For one, the announcement comes at a time when revolutionaries are trying to hold their ground against what many see as an all-out attempt by the SCAF to finish off their dreams of a democratic Egypt.
It also comes at a time when Egypt’s Islamist parties are in war-mode, working to fend off perceived conspiracies aimed at depriving them of their new hard-fought political clout – after suffering decades of political exclusion and repression – and the “turmoil” that could potentially spoil their coronation party when Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliament convenes on 23 January.
Finally, ElBaradei’s stance is also a source of irritation for the SCAF, which is planning to use its popular support to isolate the revolutionaries with a combination of smear campaigns that sow doubts over their loyalty to the nation, and patronising gestures that belittle their endeavours, like plans to drop gift coupons from military jets on people arrayed in Tahrir Square on 25 January.
However, beyond all the attacks on ElBaradei by his detractors – who accuse him of being a narcissist who can’t bear the possibility of losing – and beyond the illusions harboured by some of his supporters as to “the nobility of ElBaradei’s intentions,” two main reasons appear to have propelled the would-be reformer to end his bid for the highest office of state.
Betrayed by the gun and the word
Firstly, it has become clear in recent months that the SCAF, which wields considerable control over the powerful state media apparatus, was unlikely to support, directly or indirectly, a presidential run by ElBaradei. Some have speculated that the generals might feel more comfortable throwing their weight behind Amr Moussa, ex-Arab League chief and former foreign minister under Mubarak.
Despite the fact that ElBaradei initially told supporters on 10 February – the eve of Mubarak’s ouster – that he believed that the army would “protect the revolution,” his relationship with the generals quickly soured. In the wake of the revolution, ElBaradei repeatedly criticised the SCAF’s major political decisions, such as its call to amend – rather than abolish – the 1971 constitution, and its decision to hold parliamentary and presidential elections before a new constitution is drafted.
ElBaradei also consistently rejected the SCAF’s continued practice of referring civilians to military courts, while also calling out the generals for subjecting female anti-regime protesters to degrading virginity tests.
More significantly, ElBaradei denounced the SCAF whenever it chose to use violence to break up peaceful Tahrir Square protests, which it did on at least four separate occasions in 2011, going so far as to describe the military’s heavy-handed tactics against revolutionaries in recent months as “barbaric.”
Despite his strong stance against the country’s new military rulers, ElBaradei nevertheless offset his criticisms with gestures that expressed his willingness to defend some of their more controversial decisions, thus lending a degree of legitimacy to the SCAF and softening opposition to the generals among liberal quarters.
ElBaradei, who maintained a squeaky-clean reputation – and a healthy distance from the Mubarak regime –during his 40 years outside of Egypt, tried simultaneously to present himself to revolutionaries as someone who could negotiate with the SCAF on their behalf, and to the SCAF as someone who could talk to the revolutionaries, whom the generals abhorred but needed to placate.
ElBaradei’s golden opportunity to offer his services to both sides at once came in late November after Tahrir Square protesters found themselves hounded by security forces in the five-day battle on Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which left 44 dead and hundreds injured.
As thousands of revolutionaries fought back against tear gas and live ammunition, scores of other activists gathered tens of thousands of signatures countrywide on a petition demanding that the SCAF hand over power to a civilian presidential council. ElBaradei’s name topped the short list of three potential candidates to head up the proposed council.
The Nobel laureate’s name was also tabled for the post of prime minister in a proposed government of “national salvation” composed of figures from across the political landscape intended to replace the SCAF-appointed government of Essam Sharaf (which later resigned in the midst of the bloody crisis).
In an interview with the Tunisian Al-Shorouk newspaper late last year, ElBaradei stated that, during November’s Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, leading liberals and staunch critics of the SCAF had urged him to announce the creation of a “national salvation” government as an alternative to military rule.
ElBaradei told the Tunisian paper that he opted instead to first meet with SCAF members in person to obtain their approval for a deal that might allow him to head up a broad unity cabinet in order to appease Tahrir revolutionaries. The initiative, however, was rebuffed by the generals, said ElBaradei.
“I could not unilaterally form a cabinet,” he recalled. “That would have meant a coup against the military council, and I was not about to endanger the security of my country.”
In the weeks that followed the November clashes, ElBaradei’s standing with the ruling military council fared little better.
In another gesture of goodwill to the SCAF, ElBaradei stated his willingness to support another controversial decision on the part of the military council: the appointment of the Mubarak-era Kamal El-Ganzouri as prime minister to replace Sharaf.
A backdoor to power?
By the outset of 2012, it became increasingly clear to observers that the ruling military council would not need ElBaradei’s services to mediate with revolutionaries. The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, which once flirted with the idea of supporting an ElBaradei presidential bid, stopped courting the former IAEA chief after the group’s Freedom and Justice Party won 45 per cent of the votes in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls.
As ElBaradei’s presidential prospects dimmed with these new developments, many observers concluded that the only way the reformist might play a role in shaping the country’s short-term political future was to ally himself, as he did briefly in 2010, with revolutionary youth movements rather than put his hopes in a presidential race that might potentially lead to the disastrous end of his otherwise illustrious career.
At this point, ElBaradei began to fall back on some of his more grandiose 2009/2010-era slogans, which had earlier inspired large swathes of Egyptian youth to participate in last year’s revolution. “The people, and especially the youth, will bring about change. My role is simply to be a catalyst,” he has stated recently. “I am confident that the revolution will triumph in the end.”
As it now stands, ElBaradei can count on more than 250,000 followers on Facebook, along with several thousand hardworking activists that had been involved in his aborted presidential campaign.
ElBaradei might be hedging his bets that the public, which would probably not vote for him in significant numbers in 2012, might at some point down the line rethink its favourable opinion of the ruling military council and the Muslim Brotherhood and begin paying attention to his liberal reformist ideas.