The ElBaradei phenomenon

The ElBaradei phenomenon

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former IAEA chief, has been shaking up a stagnant Egyptian political scene ever since he returned to Cairo for a 10-day visit earlier this month. Today, he warned that Egypt’s government could face a revolutionary uprising if it doesn’t reform.

"People are ready, I would say even hungry for change, " he said. But he stuck with his line that he won’t run for president in 2011 unless the constitution is fixed and the election is free and fair. "I am not playing by the rules of this pseudo-democracy," he insisted.

Good for him, I say. But Issandr Amrani, one of the most knowledgeable commentators on Egyptian politics around, is worried that ElBaradei’s seeming reluctance to run for president could make him a flash in the pan. After all, he’s going back to Vienna, and it’s not clear how the movement that he has awakened survives in his absence.

"Even those who admire his stance are critical of his refusal to run unless the constitution is changed, a quixotic demand to which Mubarak has little incentive to acquiesce," Amrani writes.

I think this is half-right. A guy like Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with little accountability since 1981, doesn’t do something unless he’s forced to. That means ElBaradei and his supporters need to mobilize a social movement of millions — not the thousands, or tens of thousands, that the opposition has been able to muster to date. Egypt is a country of nearly 80 million people; a few thousand demonstrators in Cairo aren’t going to impress Hosni and his ambitious son Gamal very much.

But I think refusing to run for president is a smart move. It allows ElBaradei to portray himself as above politics, and it will help him build a popular front that can rally around a set of common demands, rather than being divided over his particular agenda. As someone who’s well respected in Egypt and untouchable by the regime, there’s nobody better positioned to lead such a movement. But it’s going to take a lot more than a few TV appearances — ElBaradei’s going to have to roll up his sleeves, keep the left, the liberals, and the moderate Islamists together, peel off wavering ruling party members, and stump throughout the country educating ordinary Egyptians about their country’s crisis. And he can’t do that from Vienna.