Egyptian icon or traitor? ElBaradei’s legacy

Amr Kotb, Thursday 14 Aug 2014

Mohamed ElBaradei's short-lived political career ended when he resigned from the interim government over last summer's Rabaa dispersal. But has he left behind a legacy?

Mohamed ElBaradei
Mohamed ElBaradei (Photo: Reuters)

A year ago today, security forces dispersed the sit-ins at Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Nahda squares, resulting in the death of what conservative estimates say were over 600 people.

Following this decision, Mohamed ElBaradei – Nobel laureate, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and then vice president within the interim government – resigned in protest over the violence.

His resignation shocked many who recalled his high profile involvement in opposition to the regime of Mohamed Morsi and his role in negotiations leading up to and immediately following his ouster on 3 July.

ElBaradei was the leader of the National Salvation Front (NSF) – the primary opposition group to Morsi's government – who ardently urged Egyptians to sign Tamarod's petition calling for early elections. He was also the only NSF representative to appear with others behind Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi when the then-general announced Morsi's removal. Following his role in opposing and bringing down the Brotherhood, he took a position within the interim government as vice president.

Both his degree of political involvement and subsequent expectations of him from much of the Egyptian population were unprecedented, and so his abrupt resignation and subsequent disappearing act from Egyptian politics came as an unpleasant surprise.

His resignation letter spoke of his opposition to the forcible clearing of the sit-in, adding that there were other "acceptable peaceful alternatives to resolve our societal confrontation." His statement explained that he "could not be responsible before God for a single drop of blood" and warned that "violence begets violence."

While many politicians and activists criticised ElBaradei for his resignation, others resorted to outright insults and baseless accusations.

A smear campaign alleged that he was a traitor and coward while also accusing him of being a member of the Brotherhood and an agent for the United States. He also stood accused of a "breach of trust."

Soon afterward, ElBaradei left Cairo to return to Vienna, limiting his political presence to the occasional critical jab over social media.

A year later, in remembering what happened at Rabaa and Nahda, how is ElBaradei's leadership remembered, and what kind of legacy – if any – has he left in his wake for Egyptian politics?


Since the twilight years of former president Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, ElBaradei has demonstrated a commitment to speaking out against oppression, human rights violations and authoritarianism.

Many politicians view this unwavering commitment as a testament to his influence on politics.

"He advanced Egyptian politics," said Hussein Abdel-Ghani, former spokesman for the National Salvation Front, adding that ElBaradei's defence of human rights and civil liberties has "never faltered."

Khaled Dawoud, former spokesperson of the Constitution Party, which ElBaradei founded, referred to him as a "man of principle," pointing to a legacy dedicated to nonviolence and a refusal to compromise on issues of human rights and civil liberties.

"Whether under Mubarak, the Brotherhood or the period following Morsi's ouster, he always demonstrated the same commitment to a political agenda dependent upon a high set of morals," added Abdel-Ghani.

ElBaradei's track record in opposing authoritarianism is indeed consistent. The Nobel laureate has spoken out against the Mubarak regime's violations of human rights, withstood water cannons on the Friday of Rage in 2011, challenged the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and formed the National Salvation Front to oppose the Brotherhood, among others.

Nonetheless, others say it is difficult to call ElBaradei's involvement in Egyptian politics a legacy.

"If he has left a legacy, it is a weak one," said Ahmed Bahaa, general coordinator of the ElBaradei-founded National Association for Change.

"To leave a legacy you have to hit the streets and connect with the general populace – I do not think Egyptians ever saw ElBaradei doing this," Bahaa added.

Irrational rumours, legitimate criticism

Running parallel to ElBaradei's involvement in Egyptian politics are rumours about his lifestyle and foreign allegiances as well as criticism over his political commitment.

Upon his return to Egypt from Vienna, where he spent 12 years as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, his rising popularity for criticising the Mubarak regime was met with a smear campaign.

ElBaradei was purported to be a foreigner who had spent too much time out of Egypt, drank alcohol and was an atheist.

Such accusations have continued until today, peaking after his resignation last year from the interim government.

Former interior minister Habib El-Adly – currently facing a retrial for killing protesters during the 2011 uprising – recently stated that ElBaradei incited violence during the revolt and was an emblem of a US-led conspiracy.

Most politically inclined citizens view the campaign as blatantly inaccurate and baseless.

"My criticism for ElBaradei is completely independent of the smear campaigns launched against him, which I do not believe to be remotely accurate," Bahaa said.

Dawoud added: "El-Adly's recent comments about ElBaradei being an agent for the US are part of the same smear campaign the Mubarak regime launched against him in 2010."

Dawoud also views recent rumours and insults hurled at ElBaradei to be part of the state's agenda.

"Calling ElBaradei a spy and a traitor distracted people from seeing his legacy and gave the government a cover for what it really wanted to do, which was to wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood," he said.

If the defamation relies on baseless accusations, others feel that criticism over his political commitment is legitimate.

After the 2011 uprising, many activists and revolutionaries who initially stood by ElBaradei changed their tune, citing their disappointment that he refused to run for president or play a more significant role in politics.

"His reputation may have also been hurt by a lack of political savvy," Abdel-Ghani said. "ElBaradei does not have the same political acumen as someone like Hamdeen Sabahi, who is more willing to play politics."

"He never really rolled up his sleeves and got involved," said Bahaa, adding that Egyptians are "very intelligent and observant" and need to see a political figure taking action on the ground to respect him as a politician.

"You cannot just drop in from a parachute and start getting involved and you cannot just leave when you do not like what's happening, which is something he did many times."

Bahaa added that ElBaradei's hesitance to get involved with the government and his ultimate resignation showed that he was "more concerned with his own security than that of Egypt."

Stay or go?

For many, his decision to resign last summer is one that seals the story of ElBaradei – either in favour or against him.

"His resignation from his position of vice president was his resignation from Egyptian politics; he escaped his responsibilities just as he did several times before," said Bahaa, adding that "he never did much more than attract the support of Egypt's youth by demonstrating his understanding of their needs."

Dawoud disagrees, though, explaining that ElBaradei's resignation embodies his legacy through his continued commitment to peace and human rights.

"His resignation later warned us that violence would breed more violence and instability, and if we take a look back, we will see that this is exactly what happened."

"He was in negotiations and had several nonviolent alternative solutions for addressing the sit-ins," Dawoud said.

Abdel-Ghani does not fault ElBaradei for leaving, calling the decision "rational" – but would have liked to see him "stay in the government and continue to fight for those beliefs that were so important to him."


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