The unpolitician

The big idea Mohamed ElBaradei has become the most inspiring political figure in Egypt, writes Issandr El Amrani. Too bad he is so ambivalent about politics.

Mohamed ElBaradei has become the most inspiring political figure in Egypt, writes Issandr El Amrani. Too bad he is so ambivalent about politics. What is the defining characteristic of Mubarakism? Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years, steering it through a strategic shift from the Soviet Union to the United States and from state socialism to state capitalism. Amid tremendous, and still ongoing, societal changes, Mubarak has adroitly maintained his grip on power, in part by emptying the very notion of politics of any real meaning. The genius of Mubarakism is that it remains anti-political.

It is little wonder that most Egyptians abstain from voting, don't believe elections are fair, and abound with cynicism about politicians. Instead of the political arena being a place for debate and competition, it is an echo chamber mostly occupied by the stultifying rhetoric of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Against this drone, the falsetto of a largely moribund opposition - a few legal parties that can barely muster more than a few seats in parliament and a banned Muslim Brotherhood whose main function is to play the role of scarecrow and cautionary punching bag - offers modulated indignation within the regime's red lines.

Politics in the last decade, such as it is, has therefore become the preserve of a newly vibrant civil society, which includes NGOs that defend destitute workers and victims of torture, judges eager to declare their independence from the government, and the pro-democracy Kifaya movement and its offshoots. Together these forces represent a constituency for a clean break from the current regime, drawing sustenance from a newly liberalised media and the freedom of expression made possible by the internet.

The wave of public enthusiasm that Mohamed ElBaradei is currently riding takes its energy from this loose movement. Upon his arrival at Cairo airport on February 19, about a thousand well-wishers brandishing posters of the former International Atomic Energy chief began to sing the national anthem. It was a hero's welcome, and an unlikely sight in a country where demonstrations, while frequent, rarely include more than a few hundred people - generally penned in by security forces. ElBaradei's stature - and perhaps the fact that, on the same day, Egypt's human rights record was being reviewed by the United Nations and two prominent democracy activists were meeting with US President Barack Obama - made possible the kind of demonstration rarely seen since the heyday of the "Cairo Spring" of 2005, despite a campaign to dissuade ElBaradei supporters from greeting him.

Back in 2005, when the Kifaya movement began to take to the streets, it focused an emerging consensus on what is wrong with the way in which Egypt is ruled: a permanent emergency law, constraints on the ability to organise politically, rampant corruption, lack of accountability, and omnipresent security services. ElBaradei does not deviate from this now familiar laundry list. Indeed, the ideas he has expressed in interviews before his return to Cairo and his whirlwind tour of the sets of popular talk shows have for the most part been familiar.

What is not familiar is the sight of a respected, statesmanlike member of Egypt's elite speaking in such an unequivocal way. In his television appearances, ElBaradei has matter-of-factly laid down a picture of a broken Egypt that few would disagree with. It is something that few Egyptians of his class and stature have done; many acknowledge problems, but do so in coded terms and invariably make a show of respect for the powers-that-be. With humility and eminent reasonableness, ElBaradei has called the emperor naked. Rattling off statistic after statistic about human development indicators, comparing Egypt to developing countries with vibrant democracies like India, his basic message to Egyptians appears to be: "We can do better than this." This may seem banal, but it appears to have resonated deeply with his compatriots.

This basic assessment is rejoined by two further strands of thought that, together, amount to what might called ElBaradei-ism. One is constitutionalism, a powerful idea in modern Egyptian politics ever since the nationalist movement fought for independence from Britain. The narrative of 20th-century Egyptian politics has been understood in part as a struggle for constitutional power, with the 1923 constitution establishing separation of powers and parliamentary democracy and subsequent documents subverting it. A 1930 constitution that lasted five years was a first setback from this ideal; in 1957 Gamal Abdel Nasser imposed a new constitution that granted him massive authority after having smothered a more democratic version in 1954. Anwar al-Sadat, who created the current constitution in 1971, amended it in 1980 to increase Islam's jurisprudential influence, introducing confusion between secular and religious law.

Mubarak's contribution was to introduce competitive presidential elections for the first time in 2005 and - the regime's detractors universally agree - to change the constitution in 2007 to ensure minimum electoral competition. ElBaradei - who is a constitutional lawyer by training and was involved in an unfruitful attempt to draft a new constitution when he was in the Sadat administration - argues that the current constitution is past saving. A new one should replace it, without those restrictions on political activity that, in his words, "mean that 99 per cent of Egyptians cannot be eligible for the presidency." He has made it clear that he cares more about changing the rules of the game than being president.

The other concept advanced by ElBaradei - and one that has taken many by surprise - is an impassioned embrace of the type of European-style social democracy he saw during his long residence in Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered. This idea has a strong appeal in a country where the majority of the population lives near the poverty line and social justice is lacking. Traumatised by galloping inflation and dramatic loss of purchasing power over the past decade, with strikes taking place almost continuously across the country for the last three years, Egyptians have been unconvinced by the government's action toward economic liberalisation without any political counterpart.

Again, India has been a reference in ElBaradei's thinking, not only because its political system is one where the poor do count, but also because it has been able to handle other social injustices, such as discrimination, quite well. If Manmohan Singh, India's Sikh prime minister, can come from a community that accounts for only 2% of Indians, then why shouldn't Egypt be able to have a Coptic president, he asked on one political talk show? In many respects, ElBaradei is advancing ideas that are much more progressive than the Egyptian mainstream, and he is already taking some flak for it.

ElBaradei fever is now in full swing. The Facebook group backing him is growing by 13 new members per minute, reaching over 100,000 this week. There is talk of virtually nothing else in the op-ed pages of the independent press, on satellite television and the internet. But there is also growing doubt about how serious ElBaradei is about running for president, and how much he is willing to work for it.

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. Some would have preferred that he hadn't ruled out joining an existing party and running as its candidate; others point out that he does not seem inclined to campaign - whether for the presidency or constitutional change - beyond his current 10-day visit to Egypt, and that has no serious or experienced staff, just enthusiastic fans. When this week's fever dies down, as it inevitably will, can the campaign behind ElBaradei maintain any momentum?

His admirers fret about this. ElBaradei has been ambiguous about his presidential ambition, as if he reluctantly accepted the public's call for his candidacy and is hesitating to let go of his retirement plans in Southern France. Upon his arrival at Cairo's airport, where his supporters waited for hours on a hot day, his only interaction with the crowd was a quick drive-by. Many were expecting a speech and left disappointed. He does not appear be willing to go on the campaign trail, bringing his message across the country. Nor does he have the politician's instinct for showmanship, as if the populist antics of someone like Ayman Nour - the young opposition leader who was Mubarak's main challenger in the 2005 presidential election - were somehow beneath him. Having boosted the public enthusiasm for politics in a deliberately depoliticised system, he remains an unpolitician - almost as if he regards himself as a spiritual leader rather than potentially a political one.

There is little doubt that ElBaradei's courageous decision to speak his mind on the state of the country will have a positive impact in spreading awareness of potential alternatives to the present sorry state of affairs. He has perhaps made the realistic assessment that competing directly against Hosni Mubarak is a losing battle, and that what must be prepared now is the transition to a more democratic system that might occur in a post-Mubarak Egypt. His return has advanced the cause of those who hope for a more just country, but their hearts may be broken by his reticence to enter the rough arena of political conflict.

Issandr El Amrani is a writer and analyst based in Cairo. He blogs at