CAIRO // "There is no going back, O Baradei," chanted the crowd waiting for Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency to emerge at the arrival hall at Cairo International Airport after a delay of almost three hours on Friday. "We choose you, O Baradei" and "Improve our situation, O Baradei, despair is hurting us, change our constitution, you are our symbol and hope," chanted the crowds, waving Egyptian flags and posters calling for him to be Egypt's next president.
Mr ElBaradei, 67, was whisked to the VIP lounge, at the old airport about 2.5 kilometres away. Supporters, who came from across Egypt, risked arrest as a gathering of five people or more without a permit is illegal. Two activists were arrested on Wednesday and held for 24 hours before Mr ElBaradei's arrival. Police said that they were distributing booklets and leaflets urging people to meet Mr ElBaradei in Agouza, Giza.
"ElBaradei is overwhelmed and very moved by this fabulous welcome," George Ishaq, a leader with Kefaya, a small opposition group, said just outside the airport. "We never expected this legendary welcome. It's a historical unforgettable day. I think the regime got the message," he said. "I drove all the way from Aswan to greet ElBaradei because I feel that he is our last hope to progress and alleviate Egyptians suffering," said Hani Mohie el Din Rizq, 33, a tour guide. "I'm leading a good life, but can't stand the misery and poverty that half the population are living in," he added.
Khaled Aboul Naga, an actor who is also a goodwill ambassador for Unicef, said: "I'm here to fight the culture of fear, which is the reason Egypt is no longer the strongest country in the region in any field." "The ruling [National Democratic] party has no problem with ElBaradei coming back to Egypt. He is an Egyptian citizen and has the right to return to his homeland any time," said Magdi el Dakak, the editor of state-owned October Weekly and a senior member of the NDP, which is headed by the president, Hosni Mubarak.
"The problem is that some political forces are touting him as a candidate in 2011 presidential elections, which is not in line with the constitution law, as candidacy conditions don't apply on ElBaradei," he said. Mr Mubarak, 81, who has been in power since 1981, has not said whether he will run again. There has been speculation that the constitution was amended twice since 2005 to benefit his youngest son, Gamal, 46, who has risen swiftly in the ranks of the NDP. He is now head of the influential policy committee.
Mr ElBaradei does not meet rigid conditions spelt out in Article 76 of the constitution that stipulates that only members of the upper levels of political parties who have been in their positions for more than a year and whose parties have existed for at least five years can compete in the presidential election. Independents have to receive the approval of 250 members of parliament and Shura Council, which are controlled by the ruling NDP.
"How can we compare such a respected international figure with Gamal Mubarak or even Hosni Mubarak for that matter?" said Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist and the co-ordinator of the Egyptian Campaign against Inheritance of Power, at the airport gathering. "ElBaradei's demands are the same of the opposition elite here, but coming from him it is different. "Besides he has an international weight," he said.
Mr ElBaradei had set several conditions for running in the coming election, including that it be "under the full supervision of the judiciary - and in the presence of international observers from the United Nations - to ensure transparency". He has also called for a new constitution and "the erasing of all constitutional and legal obstacles that are limiting the right of the majority of Egyptians to run, otherwise those elections will lack the needed legitimacy and will contradict the essence of democracy, which is the right of the people to choose who to represent them, and it will end in a Greek tragedy".
"To be honest, there is no presidential elections in Egypt, as the corrupt constitution, which was amended to fit Mubarak and his family, won't allow ElBaradei or others from running," said Alaa al Aswany, a novelist and newspaper columnist for Al Shorouk independent daily while he waited at the airport. firstname.lastname@example.org