CAIRO — It’s now less than two hours before the Egyptian military lays out its plan for the country’s future, and the rumors are flying fast and furious. The latest report is that army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sissi is meeting with opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the top Muslim cleric of al-Azhar mosque, and the Coptic pope. That’s pretty much a who’s who of figures hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood.
ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who formerly headed the International Atomic Energy Agency, is being floated as one possible figure to lead a transitional government after President Mohamed Morsy’s fall. He has been designated by the political opposition movement as their representative in negotiations with state authorities — and has long been rumored to be one of the U.S. government’s top choices to heal the divisions between pro- and anti-Morsy groups.
In a meeting earlier this year with a visiting scholar, Brotherhood deputy chairman Khairat al-Shater said that U.S. officials had called on Morsy to appoint ElBaradei as prime minister. The current premier, Hesham Qandil, is an Islamist figure widely derided both inside and outside the Brotherhood as ineffective — the thinking, according to Shater, was that ElBaradei’s appointment could repair the rift between the government and opposition, stabilizing the country.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. At the time, there were no signs that Morsy was willing to appoint ElBaradei as prime minister, or that ElBaradei was willing to accept the position. In an article for Foreign Policy published in our latest issue, ElBaradei castigated Morsy for overseeing "an erosion of state authority" in Egypt: "The executive branch has no clue how to run Egypt…. They do not know how to diagnose the problem and then provide the solution. They are simply not qualified to govern."
In an interview to prepare the article, I asked ElBaradei about Shater’s statement that the United States was pushing for his appointment as prime minister. He acknowledged that Secretary of State John Kerry had raised the possibility with him, but denied that he was interested in the position. "At this stage I think I would be more effective frankly being outside the system and try to focus on the bigger picture," he said.
But he didn’t close the door to entering politics down the road. "As I told Morsy last time I met him, I am ready to help you in any way…. That is really my short-term aim right now, just making sure that the country will be on the right track," he said. "The rest is history, as they say, because it’s going to take a long time. We need to be on the right track — and we are not on the right track right now."