CAIRO // He has yet to announce his candidacy nor has he shown any serious indication that he actually wants to become Egypt's next president. Fuelled by youthful excitement and outrage, Mohammed ElBaradei's 2011 presidential campaign appears to be taking off without him.
On New Year's Day, a small group of young volunteers in Cairo launched an all-singing, all-dancing campaign website - complete with patriotic background music and video interviews - to drum up support for Mr ElBaradei, who is expected to return to Egypt from Vienna, where he was the executive director of the UN's nuclear monitor, on February 19. Those are high expectations for a man whose presidential ambitions have so far amounted to a long list of caveats - which includes a general rethinking of Egypt's autocratic political process - without which Mr ElBaradei said he would not consider campaigning.
But for the tens of thousands of young Egyptians who have rallied behind him on Facebook and other internet venues, Mr ElBaradei's conditions offer the earnest promise of hope and change for Egypt's bankrupt political system. "We benefited a lot from the campaigns that were trying to make a change. The last one was [Barack] Obama's" in the United States, said Abdel Rahman Samir, the webmaster for www.elbaradei2011.com, "The Official Website for the Independent People's Campaign to Support ElBaradei 2011".
"Our campaign expresses the attitudes of youth towards bringing about change. It doesn't represent the attitudes of ElBaradei towards the presidency." Indeed, Mr ElBaradei's position has been difficult to gauge. In his most recent media statements, the Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency intimated that he was motivated more by the prospect of liberating Egypt from generations of autocracy than a genuine desire to lead.
Complicating matters is a constitutional amendment passed in 2005 that forbids anyone from running for president who has not been the head of an official political party for at least one year. Article 76 would have to be removed by the sitting president, Hosni Mubarak, before Mr ElBaradei could run. But Mr ElBaradei has gone further, demanding guarantees of full and impartial supervision of the elections by Egypt's judiciary and an international election commission. Mr ElBaradei has even called for a constitutional congress to re-imagine Egypt's political system as a democracy.
No wonder, then, that some commentators, particularly in the official state media, have called Mr ElBaradei's candidacy unlikely and his youthful supporters - there are more than 50,000 members in the largest of dozens of Facebook groups devoted to him - naive. "Having a website is not unusual, but having a website and calling yourself an official candidate is unusual because that has not happened yet," said Naila Hamdy, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, who added that Mr ElBaradei, 67, was unlikely to garner the vast youth appeal that Mr Obama, who is 19 years younger, enjoyed.
In fact, Mr ElBaradei is not the only presidential contender who hopes to pounce on the Obama zeitgeist. Gamal Mubarak, the current president's son and the man widely assumed by many Egyptians to be his father's heir, held a series of digital forums last year with the ostensible aim of wooing young people. Unlike the younger Mr Mubarak, who is 47, Mr ElBaradei's campaigners argue that their candidate is the real deal: an outsider whose potential candidacy represents an idea larger than the man himself.
In that sense, their website and Facebook group, a small, self-funded group organised from a small "temporary" office in Cairo's city centre, are directed at ElBaradei himself. They want to encourage him to run despite the constitutional challenges and a blistering government-led campaign that has tried to paint Mr ElBaradei as a foreign interloper, said Khalid Sirgany, a columnist for Al Dustour daily newspaper. "We don't know this tradition in Egypt, but if we look at the western world, we find that the supporters of some candidates start campaigning on Facebook, so that gives them a push when they nominate themselves as candidates," Sirgany said. "They want to show him that he has supporters in Egypt."
Such a show of support may greet Mr ElBaradei when he arrives in two weeks. Mr Samir and his colleagues are already using their Facebook group and the new website to organise a greeting for the potential candidate at Cairo International Airport. Considering the daunting challenges ahead, rallying enough support for Mr ElBaradei looks like a small obstacle. After Mr ElBaradei returns, the "official" unofficial campaign's primary task will be persuading the powers-that-be to change the constitution in spite of their own best interests, said Nasser Abdel Hamid, one of the campaign's leaders. Mr Hamid said he and his colleagues have been in regular touch with Mr ElBaradei and that he "likes" their website.
Until he announces his candidacy, Mr ElBaradei's supporters are anticipating a long and difficult struggle on behalf of a man whose own ambitions remain unclear. And it is that very humility and apparent lack of ambition - so rare in Egyptian politics - that many find so inspirational. "Everyone knows he is not working to be a president, but he is thinking about being a president because Egypt needs a president," said Bassem Fathi, one of the campaigners. "He is not looking for the position; the position is looking for him."