Magdy Bassyouni ElBaradei apologised for the interruption, but someone had knocked at his front gate. A passer-by had seen a car with Cairo licence plates parked in front of his home, and had to stop and ask: had this car carried Mohammed ElBaradei, the possible presidential contender, on his long-anticipated first visit to his native village of Ibiar? No, Mr Bassyouni ElBaradei told the man. The car was carrying only a few foreign journalists, the latest in a parade of political pilgrims who have electrified this small, dusty town, about two hours north of Cairo, where villagers say Mr ElBaradei was born.
"They are very excited and very passionate. They are patriots," said Mr Bassyouni ElBaradei of his neighbours and friends in Ibiar. Mr Bassyouni ElBaradei, a school teacher, described himself as "a relative" of Mohammed ElBaradei's. "[ElBaradei's] family still has a very close relationship with the village, like his mother and brothers and sisters. They keep calling and visiting, and he used to come here quite often."
Never mind that Mr ElBaradei has not set foot in Ibiar recently, or that his birth here is disputed. Never mind, also, the state-led smear campaign that has tried to paint Mr ElBaradei as a foreign interloper. For the residents of Ibiar, Mr ElBaradei is a favourite son, whose ambitions for political change are as much theirs as his. "I have no opinion. I know nothing about politics," said Hassan Abu Al Yaziid, 69, sitting at a coffee shop in Ibiar. "All I know is he is the son of this village and I would be happy if he were president."
It is this pride of place that has led many visitors to rural Egypt to characterise the Egyptian mentality as inward-looking, even provincial. Travellers have long described the Egyptian proclivity for all things local, known in Arabic as balady, as a pervasive feature of the country's collective consciousness. And it was just this sentiment that Egypt's government had hoped to play on, with the state-run media painting the Nobel laureate as un-Egyptian and out of touch.
But it has misjudged its countrymen and their changing values, according to political analysts. Where once Egyptians might have seen a man like Mr ElBaradei, who served for 12 years as the head of the UN nuclear watchdog, as an outsider to be treated with wariness and mistrust, now they see his differences as refreshing. "Egyptian values have changed over the past 20 to 30 years. Any Egyptian now has had a relative outside Egypt for 20 or 25 years, either in the Gulf states or in Europe through illegal immigration," said Khalid Sirgany, a columnist for the independent daily newspaper Al Dustour. "So any Egyptian will just consider ElBaradei exactly as his relative who left home."
Indeed, when he returned to Egypt last week, Mr ElBaradei was greeted at the airport by more than a thousand well-wishers who hope the outsider will run for president in the 2011 elections on a platform of clean government and constitutional reform. Recent constitutional amendments that may prevent Mr ElBaradei from running indicate that Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), the political machine that has dominated the country for more than 30 years, clearly saw him as a threat.
"They described him as a khawaga, which means a western man, not an Egyptian," said Emad Gad, a political analyst for the semi-official Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "When they speak about ElBaradei as a western man, they want to tell the Egyptian public opinion that he is not pure Egyptian, at least in style of life and style of thinking. He is not pure Egyptian and at the same time is not pure Muslim."
Such talk would have been toxic for a politician of past generations, said Mr Gad. During Egypt's ultranationalist period in the 1950s and 1960s, all things balady were elevated to the point of reverence and outsiders were shunned as ignorant pretenders. But times have changed. These days, many members of Egypt's autocratic ruling NDP carry foreign passports, while millions of less fortunate Egyptians live abroad as guest workers. Remittances from Egyptian labourers amount to nearly US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) a year.
These days, Egypt is an outward-looking, cosmopolitan place, said Mr Gad. "They are using a very old instrument in their campaign against ElBaradei. And frankly speaking, they are not clever," he said of the NDP. "They are afraid of any competitor because they aren't used to being part of a competition. They aren't used to running a free and fair election." In reports that emerged from Ibiar following Mr ElBaradei's return last Friday, residents expressed the sort of outrage that might have characterised an older, more provincial Egypt. Why, wondered some of the townspeople, had Mr ElBaradei not visited?
But in later interviews, many in the town described an unconditional devotion to Mr ElBaradei despite their apparent confusion about his true origins. Many of the townspeople, some of whom share the ElBaradei name, describe themselves as relatives and say he was born in Ibiar. Mustafa ElBaradei, a prominent Egyptian lawyer and Mohammed ElBaradei's father, was known around Ibiar for his charitable contributions and his generous pro bono legal services to the town's poor. He moved his family to Cairo in the late 1960s, several residents said, in order to assume the leadership of Egypt's Lawyers' Syndicate.
In what could be taken as signs of devotion, confusion or just wishful thinking, some in Ibiar said they had attended Mr ElBaradei's elementary school in the town or had known him as a child. But according to Ali ElBaradei, Mr ElBaradei's brother, such stories are apocryphal. "Please note that my father was born in Ibiar in 1906 and has moved to Cairo in around 1916," wrote Ali ElBaradei in an e-mail. "My siblings and I are all born in Cairo. It's not true that we have any direct cousins in Ibiar. So please do not let anyone there fool you into claiming to be [a] cousin."
The question for Mr ElBaradei and his campaign, however, is whether other towns and villages across Egypt will follow Ibiar's lead. For some, his remoteness carries a cleansing quality. "I want ElBaradei to win because he's pure, he's not corrupt," said Hayam Ibrahim, an office assistant in the middle class Cairo suburb of Agouza. But for most Egyptians, Mr ElBaradei remains more of an idea than a man.
"Parties need people with power. ElBaradei has a brilliant mind. Yes, he dealt with the nuclear issues, but he's not a politician and he doesn't know about the politics and foreign affairs that surround Egypt," said Raaed Ezzat, 34, an accountant. "People want to elect someone they know." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org