Dr. ElBaradei and Egypt's Presidency | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 06, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 06, 2010

Dr. ElBaradei and Egypt's Presidency

Photo: AFP

EGYPT, a country unaccustomed to tolerating political opposition, could be getting ready for a change finally. Nobel Laureate and former Chief of the IAEA, Dr. Mohammad ElBaradei, who is the most well known Egyptian internationally in contemporary times, was given a rousing welcome when he arrived in Cairo recently; a reception that was motivated by politics as many Egyptians are beginning to see him as their man of destiny. He is viewed as one who could transform Egypt into a working democracy based no doubt upon his fame for winning the Nobel Peace Prize and handling the crisis in Iraq over presence of WMD as Chief of IAEA and his impeccable record on corruption, a rare commodity in the politics of Egypt.
Egypt saw the downfall of monarchy when King Farook was quietly sent on exile by a group of army officers led by Lieutenant General Mohammed Najeeb in 1952. However, the real power behind the move by the disaffected army officers called the “free officers” was Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser who set aside General Najeeb and assumed power. Initially Egyptians were unsure about him but his stars rose dramatically when he nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. It helped him ride the wave of popularity not in just Egypt but also in the Arab world for placating pan-Arabism and Arab socialism. Nasser ruled as arbitrarily as all Egyptian rulers in history but he had Vice Presidents while he governed with Anwar Sadat, the last of his many Vice Presidents. As President, Anwar Sadat took General Hosne Mubarak as Vice President who became President when he was assassinated in 1981.
Nasser's sudden death and Sadat's sudden assassination did not create any problem in succession as a Vice president was already in place who was in due course elected President through Egypt's system of referendum. Already 81, in failing health and the next presidential election due next year, the issue of transition from Mubarak has emerged as a major political issue in Egypt's politics because Mubarak has ruthlessly subordinated the opposition and did not take a Vice President. He has not overtly groomed any successor but gave enough power and influence to the younger of his two sons Gamal Mubarak not to leave much doubt in the public mind that he wanted him to “inherit” the Presidency. In fact, the father has more than ensured the son the Presidency because of his absolute control over the military and the intelligence that virtually control and rule Arab world's most populous nation. Perhaps with this succession by “inheritance” in mind, President Mubarak never took a Vice-President. However, where all the past Presidents, including Mubarak, have been from the military, Gamal Mubarak is a civilian. With President Mubarak still in firm control, there seems to be no one else in the wings to contest Gamal's claim but that situation could change dramatically if anything happens to the President between now and the election.
Egypt is the hub of politics in the Middle East. Its history and geopolitical location gives it a place of pre-eminence not just in regional affairs but also in international politics. In a region that is a hotbed of crisis of all sorts, the United States and its allies have always sought Egypt's assistance to seek their resolution. The United States provides Egypt with the largest quantum of assistance that totalled US$ 28 billion between 1975 and 2005. Unfortunately, while the United States has gone to Iraq and other places of the world to bring about democracy, in Egypt it has backed Hosne Mubarak to the tilt although his rule has been anything but democratic. Mubarak was re-elected in 1987, 1993 and 1999 through referendum. In 2005, after a change in the constitution that allowed parties to directly contest an incumbent President, Mubarak was again re-elected by a massive majority but the result has been contested both at home and abroad on issue of fairness. Mubarak has thus ruled by force of military and intelligence backed power rather than with the people behind him. He also lacked the charisma of his predecessors, particularly Nasser, and did not enjoy the popularity to support his long hold on power. He has thus not been able to play a role in international politics as effectively as a popularly backed Egyptian leader could have.
Dr. ElBaradei has thus landed in Cairo in the backdrop of an interesting and exciting political scenario. Dr. ElBaradei who retired from his IAEA position after 12 years in November last year remained abroad from where he gave interviews to the media indicating his intention to contest the next Presidential election but subject to a few conditions. The wide range of people who greeted Dr. ElBaradei at Cairo airport is revealing. It did not just included people with known opposition links; there were people from all regions and walks of life, many with no political links, who came to show their support for someone they thought had the potentials to change Egypt's political system known to be inefficient and corrupt. An independent group called “ElBaradei for Presidency” that has 65,000 members on Facebook has already started campaigning actively and they claim representation in all the cities across Egypt.
Some people are also wary whether a former diplomat who has lived most of his life abroad and out of touch with Egypt's politics would be able to lead Egypt if he wins the presidency. However, more serious issues must first be resolved before going to that stage. For one, whether Dr. ElBaradei would be allowed by an authoritarian regime determined in favour of the incumbent President's son to contest the election is yet to be settled because he does not fulfil the requirement of heading a political party for at least a year to become a candidate. Then there is the military and intelligence who would like their candidate to win and win handsomely and they have many a trick up their sleeves. Dr. ElBaradei has also set conditions like assurance of a free and fair election, independent judicial review, international oversight, and equal opportunity for media coverage. These are big issues and President Mubarak could agree to meet these conditions only by putting his son's succession in jeopardy. In his negotiations with Iran as IAEA Chief, the US thought he was soft on Iran and that could become an issue against him as Egyptians are not known to be pro-Iran.
However, all the above factors notwithstanding, Egyptians are agog with the prospect of a change from the absolute rule that Dr. Elbaradei's candidature has caused across a wide spectrum of reglious, regional and other issues that divide Egyptians. President Mubarak will not find it easy to hand over power to his son; that in itself is a victory for democracy. In Egypt's stereo-typed politics Dr. Elbardei's entry, even if it is not successful, has injected a breath of fresh air and an element of hope for change.
The author is a former Ambassador to Egypt and Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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