ElBaradei’s personal revolution: from multilateral bureaucrat to populist patriot

The life of Mohamed ElBaradei was upended dramatically this past week: where the Nobel-Prize winning former U.N. nuclear watchdog chief was recently living the life of a retired bureaucrat, he is now a potential power broker in Egypt’s most volatile political crisis in a generation. Egypt’s disparate opposition leaders and protesters, including Ayman Nour, a ...

By
558490_110131_ElBaradei2.jpg
558490_110131_ElBaradei2.jpg
CAIRO, EGYPT - JANUARY 30: Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei waves to supporters in Tahrir Square on January 30, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. Cairo remained in a state of flux and marchers continued to protest in the streets and defy curfew, demanding the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek. As President Mubarak struggles to regain control after five days of protests he has appointed Omar Suleiman as vice-president. The present death toll stands at 100 and up to 2,000 people are thought to have been injured during the clashes which started last Tuesday. Overnight it was reported that thousands of inmates from the Wadi Naturn prison had escaped and that Egyptians were forming vigilante groups in order to protect their homes. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The life of Mohamed ElBaradei was upended dramatically this past week: where the Nobel-Prize winning former U.N. nuclear watchdog chief was recently living the life of a retired bureaucrat, he is now a potential power broker in Egypt's most volatile political crisis in a generation.

The life of Mohamed ElBaradei was upended dramatically this past week: where the Nobel-Prize winning former U.N. nuclear watchdog chief was recently living the life of a retired bureaucrat, he is now a potential power broker in Egypt’s most volatile political crisis in a generation.

Egypt’s disparate opposition leaders and protesters, including Ayman Nour, a prominent human rights lawyer who was imprisoned after running for president in 2005, and the Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt’s Islamist opposition group — have rallied behind ElBaradei, 68, as a common representative in possible talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak‘s embattled government. That type of high-stakes national diplomacy would be unfamiliar territory for ElBaradei, the one-time legal scholar.

ElBaradei’s sudden emergence as a national consensus figure has caught many international observers by surprise. It has also prompted American policy makers to go silent, fearing that any public U.S. support for ElBaradei or any other potential Egyptian leader could undermine prospects for unifying the country.

“They are really, really trying hard not to personalize and not to focus on individuals,” said Marc Lynch, an associate professor at George Washington University and Foreign Policy blogger who was briefed today by White House officials on the administration’s Egypt policy. “They are bending over backwards not to be seen as appointing the next president of Egypt.” But ElBaradei, he notes, is “extremely well placed to reassure all constituencies which need reassuring that he is not likely to stick around for ever and be the next Mubarak.”

During his 12 years as the U.N.’s top nuclear watchdog, ElBaradei has tangled with some of the world’s toughest rogue regimes, including Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s Iran and Kim Jong il‘s North Korea — and butted heads with the Bush administration over its approach to Iraq and Iran. Throughout, ElBaradei has demonstrated a commitment to some basic principles that may inform his current role. Foremost among them are a belief in the power of diplomacy to persuade one’s adversaries (as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, he eschewed coercion in his dealings with the Iranian nuclear program), and the importance of standing up to powerful interests (principally the United States, which wanted to take a more concertedly hard-line against alleged proliferators during his tenure at the U.N).

But ElBaradei is a virtual political unknown inside Egypt. His foreign pedigree adds to suspicions that the U.S.-educated official is a tool of the United States and other Western powers. Since he departed his Vienna home and arrived in Egypt last week, ElBaradei has sought to burnish his national standing, joining the protesters in Tahrir Square and sharply criticizing the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis in Egypt, striking a tone that is likely to garner support among the protesters. “It is better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, it’s time for you to go,” ElBaradei said recently.

ElBaradei, who served as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from Dec. 2007 to Nov. 2009, is best known in the West for challenging the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein was actively pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But he also infuriated American conservatives, most notably former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton, for using his personal prestige at the nuclear agency to pursue a diplomatic settlement of the nuclear crisis with Tehran.

That stance prompted the Bush administration, led by Bolton, to oppose his bid in 2005 for a second term at IAEA and, paradoxically, likely secured his legacy as a Nobel laureate. “Mr. Bolton overstepped his bounds in his moves and gyrations to try to keep ElBaradei from being reappointed as [IAEA] head,” says Lawrence Wilkerson, an advisor at the time to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Bolton was “going out of his way to badmouth him, to make sure that everybody knew that the maximum power of the United States would be brought to bear against them if he were brought back in,” Wilkerson recalls. In awarding the prize, which ElBaradei shared with the IAEA, the Nobel committee said he “stood as an unafraid advocate” for the use of diplomacy, rather than force, in the effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

ElBaradei entered Eygptian politics only after retiring from the United Nations. In Dec. 2009, ElBaradei, then 67, announced plans to consider a presidential run in 2011, but only if Mubarak’s government provided “guarantees of fairness,” including a role for U.N. observers. In Feb. 2009, ElBaradei arrived in Cairo for a visit and received a jubilant reception.

“I would like to be, at this time, an agent to push Egypt toward a more democratic and transparent regime, with all of its implications for the rest of the Arab world,” ElBaradei said in an interview in Jan. 2010, with Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner. “If I am able to do that, I will be very happy because we need to achieve democracy in the Arab world as fast as we can.”

Observers say that Elbaradei’s political performance in recent weeks, while generating widespread attention from international media who have followed his tweets and interviews in prominent Western publications, did little to secure a grass roots following, though his standing was boosted when the regime briefly placed him under house arrest last week.  “There was not a lot of excitement when he showed up,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, an expert on Egypt at the Century Foundation. “He’s not a populist leader; he’s not charismatic — he’s stiff out there.”

ElBaradei’s lack of charisma notwithstanding, many of Egypt’s time pro-democracy activists resent that he has spent so much time outside the country, while they were doing the hard work of pressing for democracy at home. “It’s a legitimate complaint,” Hanna says. “But a constellation of opposition figures glommed onto him as a tactical way to influence the United States and to dampen down the concerns about all hell breaking loose after Mubarak.”

Hanna and other observers say that ElBaradei will have limited scope to pursue his own personal vision, noting that other leaders of the protest movement hold the power to block any deal not to their liking. “A lot of people in the West are rushing to this story, but we run the risk of inflating him more than is warranted,” Hanna says. “He doesn’t have any moral authority to dictate to the protesters what sort of deal may be acceptable.”

Still, ElBaradei could play a vital role as a unifying figure for many of same reasons he never emerged as a credible national leader. “He’s the perfect person,” says Marc Lynch. “He’s not affiliated with any political trends, he’s kind of old and he is well known in Western capitals — he can reassure,” says Lynch. “The only other alternative seems to be someone like Omar Suleiman, which would be a disaster.” Mubarak appointed Suleiman, his former intelligence chief, vice-president this week. But the appointment of a Mubarak loyalist has done little to quell the protests.

The sudden political rise of ElBaradei has divided American conservatives, who had traditionally vilified him for advocating a soft diplomatic approach toward Iraq and Iran. Bolton remains unconverted. “This is not the solution to Egypt’s problems,” Bolton told Turtle Bay. “In Egyptian terms he’s a political dilettante, he’s been overseas much of his career, and he has as much of a political following in Egypt as I do…. I think he has already demonstrated that through his time at the IAEA his anti-Americanism. And I think we should see that reflected in any ElBaradei involvement in Egypt.”

Danielle Pletka, a foreign and defense policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, suggested that ElBaradei’s commitment to democratic reform in Egypt be taken into account. “ElBaradei has many weaknesses, including an ego the size of all outdoors, but he has done nothing to prove he is against democracy, and his job is to work for the Egyptian people, not for us,” she told Turtle Bay.

Benny Avni, a conservative Israeli-American commentator, wrote in the New York Post that ElBaradei may be the “least bad option to ensure that Egypt doesn’t fall into the hands of fanatical Islamists forces the way Iran did 30 years ago.”

“President Obama may want to use his considerable influence over the army to facilitate the rise of a long-time American foe, Mohamed ElBaradei,” Avni wrote. “Why not set up a meeting: Mohamed, say hello to Generals Tantawi and Enan. Generals, this is ElBaradei, Now play nice, be friends and we’ll continue our support of Egypt.”

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.