A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 26, 2010

ElBaradei: Week One

Today marks a week since Mohamed ElBaradei returned to Egypt. The government still seems uncertain what to make of it all. Yesterday's rare hailstorm in Cairo and violent rains also might seem like an omen of sorts to some.

I don't want to overkill the topic, though it's captivated Egyptian bloggers and independent media. But it's been an activist week. During his first week, ElBaradei met with‘Amr Moussa, the Arab League Secretary-General who has also dropped hints of a willingness to run; then he met at his villa with various opposition figures and announced the formation of a national front to promote constitutional change, and has also met with his younger supporters from Facebook and other groups promoting his candidacy.

Meanwhile various establishment types continue to disparage him. And Coptic Pope Shenouda, who has pretty much openly endorsed Gamal Mubarak, has expressed no opinion on ElBaradei amid reports that the ruling party has asked him to bar Coptic bishops from expressing support. And he's given a number of television interviews, some to pro-government media.

Besides not wanting to over-cover this story, of course there's another major caveat: I'm not there. Sometimes through the wonders of newspaper and television websites and YouTube, it can feel as if we really are all wired into each other, but in fact, I'm not there and haven't been there in several years. So I'm going to collect some of the more intelligent and thoughtful analyses, concentrating for now on those in English, of those who are there.

First, Issandr El Amrani (the blogger known as The Arabist) has a thoughtful piece at The National, in their Review section (not to be confused with the National Review, though that line may only make sense to American readers), which deserves to be read in full. But as a teaser to persuade you to click, here are some excerpts:

The other concept advanced by ElBaradei – and one that has taken many by surprise – is an impassioned embrace of the type of European-style social democracy he saw during his long residence in Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered. This idea has a strong appeal in a country where the majority of the population lives near the poverty line and social justice is lacking. Traumatised by galloping inflation and dramatic loss of purchasing power over the past decade, with strikes taking place almost continuously across the country for the last three years, Egyptians have been unconvinced by the government’s action toward economic liberalisation without any political counterpart.

Again, India has been a reference in ElBaradei’s thinking, not only because its political system is one where the poor do count, but also because it has been able to handle other social injustices, such as discrimination, quite well. If Manmohan Singh, India’s Sikh prime minister, can come from a community that accounts for only 2% of Indians, then why shouldn’t Egypt be able to have a Coptic president, he asked on one political talk show? In many respects, ElBaradei is advancing ideas that are much more progressive than the Egyptian mainstream, and he is already taking some flak for it.
The article also notes that the Facebook group backing ElBaradei has passed 100,000 members and is growing by 13 members a minute.

For your second reading assignment, by all means don't miss this post by the (all too silent lately) blogger who blogs as Baheyya: "The Wildcard." This is her first posting since October, but it's worth the wait. Some of the key parts are below, but again, read it all:
Five years ago today, when Hosni Mubarak made his big announcement about direct, multicandidate presidential elections, he couldn’t have dreamed that five years down the line, he’d face a most unexpected challenger. Someone who is everything that Mubarak and his son aren’t: internationally respected, intellectually nimble, and domestically popular.

Who knows whether ElBaradei has a real chance at the presidency? What’s clear is that his return to Egypt has completely flummoxed Mubarak and his retinue. Up to now, they’ve dealt handily with all the domestic politicians and pressure groups who’ve opposed their rule, ridiculing some, imprisoning others, co-opting still others, and simply exhausting whoever’s left. Along comes ElBaradei, with an energetic mien and an organized plan. His international standing ensure that he can’t be repressed or ridiculed. He’s made it crystal clear that he won’t be co-opted. And the incredible surge of popular enthusiasm that’s enveloped him makes it unlikely that he’ll get tired and retreat.

Elections have always been nuisances for Mubarak, now they’re turning into nightmares. Why? First because ElBaradei shows up the ridiculous rules governing the political game. The laughingstock Political Parties Committee, the crazy restrictions of Article 76 on presidential candidacy, the elimination of judicial supervision over elections, and the nefarious provisions littering the law governing political participation. The Egyptian opposition has been crying foul over these things for decades and decades, but the criticism sounds a lot more credible when it comes from someone with impeccable international standing.

Second, ElBaradei’s entry certifies the beleaguered Egyptian opposition. I’m talking about the real opposition, not the fake opposition parties in Wust al-Balad and Dokki licensed by the regime. Some so-called analysts’ favorite pastime is to sit around announcing the demise of Kifaya, the Ikhwan, al-Ghad, the various reform groups among the professions, civil society associations, etc. ElBaradei’s joining of their ranks and endorsement of their decades long demands for constitutional reform, fair elections, and redistributive policies suddenly raises their profile and makes it that much harder for the regime to dismiss them as fanatics, lunatics, foreign agents, loudmouth nationalist-populists, or what have you.
Like El Amrani, she's careful to say it isn't clear how ElBaradei could even stand as a candidate, but he's clearly something the regime doesn't quite understand. He can't be harassed with trumped up charges ( as were Saadeddin Ibrahim or Ayman Nour), scapegoated and made into a bogeyman like the Muslim Brotherhood, and he's a well-known face internationally, which offers him form of protection since the regime is always sensitive to criticism, especially by its major US aid provider.

Over at Bikya Masr, Joseph Mayton hints that the synagogue attack in Cairo the other day may have been intended to divert attention from ElBaradei.

And at The Boursa Exchange, a couple of items worth noting: "The Long and Winding Road," an analysis of the challenges facing the opposition; also, they've translated an op-ed by novelist Alaa al-Aswani (he of The Yacoubian Building) (he's also a supporter of the Kifaya Movement) that appeared in Al-Shorouk a week ago on the day of the return, called "Why are we Going to Welcome ElBaradei?" (The Arabic original is here.)

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