CAIRO (AP) — The U.N.’s former nuclear chief has yet to return home to his native Egypt after almost a quarter century monitoring the world’s atomic programs, but the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner has already created the biggest political stir in his homeland in years by hinting at a new career in politics.
Mohamed ElBaradei may one day regret plunging into Egypt’s politics — where challenges to the regime have been few and swiftly dealt with — but his move has injected fresh hope into the country’s stagnant political atmosphere.
Egypt has been ruled for nearly 30 years by Hosni Mubarak, now 81, who appears to be trying to set up a political dynasty by grooming his son to succeed him.
Respected throughout the world and untouched by the corruption tainting much of the current regime in Egypt, ElBaradei could well be the most credible opposition leader to emerge in this U.S.-allied country in living memory.
Except that the chances of ElBaradei of even being allowed to run in the 2011 presidential race are slim, thanks to a series of constitutional amendments pushed through by the government in 2005 and 2007 that practically limit the candidacies to senior members of the ruling party or a few token, officially sanctioned, opposition parties.
Even if he did run, he would be faced by a ruling party candidate backed by the government’s vast resources and enjoying the support of the security agencies, the most powerful players in Egyptian elections.
“But the frustration within Egypt is such that such a figure could inspire a real sense of opposition even if such sentiments are primarily a rejection of the status quo,” said Egyptian-American analyst Michael W. Hanna of the Century Foundation in New York. “He is a very compelling figure.”
ElBaradei is not expected to return home from Vienna for another month, but in an open letter responding to a campaign by young Egyptians urging him to run for president, he said he would only run if there were guarantees that elections would be free, fully supervised by the judiciary and monitored by the international community.
He also wants the constitution amended to remove restrictions on who is eligible to run.
“What I want is for Egypt to become a democratic nation … my words are not driven by a personal desire or motive but by a firm conviction that the people of Egypt deserve 10 times better than what they have,” he told the independent al-Shorouk daily in a December interview.
Egypt’s authoritarian ruler of 28 years, Mubarak has not named a successor and never had a vice president since he took office in 1981. His son Gamal is the most dominant figure in the ruling National Democratic Party and is widely expected to succeed his father — something most Egyptians don’t necessarily support.
The uncertainty surrounding the succession, analysts say, poses a threat to stability of this close-U.S. ally, given the growing popular discontent over high unemployment, rising prices, corruption and the stranglehold over the country by security agencies and a clique of regime-linked businessmen and politicians.
It is against this potentially explosive backdrop that last month’s announcement by the 67-year-old ElBaradei that he would enter politics has taken Egypt by storm, dominating TV talk shows, inspiring thousands of Internet postings and making front pages.
But some commentators say the soft-spoken ElBaradei could be of more use to Egypt if he did not seek the presidency and focused instead on creating a popular movement to press for reform.
“Entering the presidential arena is the wrong start,” Abdel-Azeem Hamad, editor of the al-Shorouk, warned ElBaradei in a recent article, suggesting instead a run for parliament in next year’s general election.
But whichever way he chooses, the ex-IAEA chief, who has law degrees from Cairo and New York, has already entered the ring and will face opponents who have in the past ruthlessly dealt with competition.
That became clear soon after ElBaradei’s open letter was published last month.
His criticism of the Mubarak regime and his calls for reform drew an immediate rebuke from the government controlled press.
In a series of articles, he was branded an American stooge, blamed for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and accused of knowing little about Egypt because of his long years abroad.
ElBaradei need not look too far back to find examples of what the regime can do to its foes.
Opposition leader Ayman Nour, Mubarak’s main challenger in the 2005 presidential elections, was later jailed for nearly four years on forgery charges said by his supporters to be fabricated.
Backed by emergency laws in force for nearly three decades, the regime frequently jails journalists, pro-reform activists and opposition politicians.
It may not be easy for the regime to treat ElBaradei the same way given the respect he has earned for leading the International Atomic Energy Agency during difficult times. But the Mubarak regime is not known to pull any punches either.
The momentum, however, is on ElBaradei’s side.
Some commentators say he could be the country’s savior, delivering its 80 million people from what is widely seen as policies biased in favor of the rich and against the poor. Others say he could force Mubarak, or his successor, into introducing genuine reforms.
Adel Hammouda, a prominent columnist and editor of the independent Al-Fagr weekly, said the attacks on ElBaradei in the government-controlled press suggest that the regime was running scared, but he also noted that ElBaradei’s threat lies in his emphasis on reform rather than seeking power.
“All he is after is to be like Gandhi, the father of a peaceful revolution, who has no interest in power but is able to incite anger,” he wrote.