The Islamist Flirtation

Mohamed ElBaradei's growing ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood call into question his commitment to liberal reform.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

Politics can offer some strange second acts. Just ask Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate turned would-be presidential candidate who is now flirting with joining forces with Egypt’s main Islamist party.

Since leaving his post as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in December, the 67-year-old diplomat has dipped his toe into electoral politics in his home country of Egypt. While still notional, ElBaradei’s possible candidacy in the country’s 2011 presidential election has galvanized Egypt’s long-moribund political opposition.

Still, ElBaradei’s presidential bid is an exceedingly long shot. After all, Egypt’s political system is jury-rigged in favor of President Hosni Mubarak — and the Mubarak dynasty. Hosni himself, ailing and in his 29th year of rule, is likely to continue in office for the time being, with power eventually devolving to his son and heir apparent, Gamal.

Outsiders will have a harder time than ever challenging this lockhold because of constitutional changes instituted three years ago that restrict candidacy to those chosen by Mubarak’s party and those belonging to a recognized party for at least five years. ElBaradei does not currently meet either criteria.

But ElBaradei has an even more fundamental problem: lack of a constituency. Despite his domestic appeal — he is the son of one of Cairo’s most decorated jurists — ElBaradei’s absence from Egyptian politics since the late 1970s has led many to see him as a carpetbagger. So even if the former IAEA chief could somehow pass electoral muster, he is likely to find himself more symbol than statesman.

All of this is to attempt to explain why ElBaradei has begun a dangerous flirtation with Egypt’s main Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. In late February, ElBaradei met in Cairo with the heads of several political factions to form the "National Coalition for Change," an umbrella group of opposition parties from across the Egyptian political spectrum. Notably, the Brotherhood — the world’s most influential font of radical Islamic ideas — also participated in the meeting, and its leaders have since endorsed ElBaradei’s efforts. "ElBaradei’s and the Brotherhood’s call for political and social change converge," Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, chairman of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, recently confirmed to reporters.

For ElBaradei, such outreach might simply be good retail politics. After all, with control of one-fifth of the seats in Egypt’s parliament, the Brotherhood — though still formally banned, and routinely persecuted, by the Mubarak regime — wields considerable political clout.

Still, political participation doesn’t necessarily mean moderation. The Brotherhood’s long-awaited political platform, unveiled publicly back in October 2007, laid out a radical, exclusionary vision that marginalized women and non-Muslims and advocated the establishment of a religious authority with oversight over all governmental activity. The following year, an internal election within the movement strengthened the party’s hard-liners. More recently, conservative factions within the Brotherhood have been accused of carrying out a "purge" of the movement’s reformist wing — a charge confirmed by the installation of ultraconservative cleric Mohamed Badie as the organization’s supreme guide in January. If the Brotherhood is joining a coalition committed to political liberalism, it’s clearly not for ideological reasons.

Instead, the Brotherhood may be joining forces with ElBaradei out of necessity. In recent weeks, the Mubarak regime, anticipating a serious electoral challenge in parliamentary elections this year, has launched a renewed crackdown on the movement, decimating the organization’s leadership and thinning its ranks. As a result, the group is scrambling for its political survival, and any ideological agenda is on hold for the time being. ElBaradei’s political coalition offers the Brotherhood an attractive way to remain relevant without giving in too much to Mubarak.

So Egypt’s newest political player now faces a significant conundrum. ElBaradei’s vocal commitment to greater pluralism and better governance already has managed to do what years of politics as usual in Cairo has not: energize the lethargic Egyptian "street" and present a viable alternative to the Mubaraks. But if, in his bid for relevance, the nuclear-czar-turned-candidate makes common cause with the Brotherhood, he might just end up playing an unexpected role — savior of Egypt’s Islamist opposition.

Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council and author of Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam.