Middle East

Egypt’s Reluctant Revolutionary

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Mohamed ElBaradei was greeted by cheering crowds upon his return to Cairo. Now for the hard part


David Kenner

19 February 2010


Austrian Airlines Flight 863 touched down in Cairo at 5:30 p.m. today, completing its journey from Vienna two and a half hours late. A jubilant crowd of Egyptians waited in Cairo’s airport lobby, anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 people, tracking the flight’s progress carefully as they waved Egyptian flags and sang the national anthem. Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei — former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and potential presidential contender — was returning home.


ElBaradei’s return represents a headache for Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s 81-year-old president. Mubarak is widely believed to be shepherding his son, Gamal, into the presidency, possibly as early as the upcoming 2011 presidential election. But this past December, ElBaradei dropped a bombshell that complicated Mubarak’s plans: He would consider a run for Egypt’s presidency — provided that the government ensured a fair campaign and revised the restrictive amendments to the Egyptian Constitution that outline who can contend for the presidency.


ElBaradei’s third term at the IAEA expired on Nov. 30, 2009. Since then, he has been living in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, reportedly tying up loose ends after 12 years at the helm of the organization. In January, he gave an interview toForeign Policy where he elaborated on his career at the IAEA and expanded on his future in Egyptian politics.


There was no shortage of skeptics who maintained that ElBaradei’s return would elicit little more than an ambivalent reaction from the Egyptian public. Yes, the “Draft ElBaradei” campaign boasts an official-looking website and aFacebook group of over 60,000 members. But how many of those e-supporters would actually be motivated — and risk the potential government crackdown — to attend ElBaradei’s homecoming? “In Egypt, we have a big gap between virtual life and reality,” worried Amr Choubaki, an Egyptian analyst with the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “Many people participate in the movement on the Internet, but the majority of them don’t go to the street.”

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