When Mohamed ElBaradei finished his term as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, most observers expected him to enjoy his retirement, to rest on his well-deserved laurels. He was already an international icon, a Nobel Laureate, and one of the few figures of authority that argued against the invasion of Iraq. At the time, the Egyptian diplomat was ridiculed for his insistence that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction; seven years and hundreds of thousands of deaths later, we all know he was right. After such a distinguished career, no one would have held it against him if he’d gone on a few speaking tours and maybe set up some ambiguous, self-referential NGO (such as the Kofi Annan Foundation). This is the path of most international diplomats.
Not Mohamed ElBaradei. He ditched the coliseum of international politics for a much dirtier arena: challenging the overwhelming authority of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. There are elections in 2011, and Gamal Mubarak, Hosni’s son, was being groomed for power. Then ElBaradei stepped in, saying in an interview that he would not consider participating in the elections until Egypt massively reformed its electoral system. Suddenly, Egypt’s vibrant social media scene came alive; blogs like the Arabist were beside themselves with excitement at the implications of an ElBaradei candidacy. Of course, ElBaradei is nothing if not a canny politician; he refrained from directly criticising the government, although the criticism was of course implied. And he was not declaring his candidacy, either; just floating its possibility, if certain conditions about the electoral system were met. Suddenly, Egypt’s beleaguered opposition had an internationally recognised, credible figure to echo their complaints, and the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt’s main opposition party) soon endorsed ElBaradei’s demands for change.
Last Friday, he took his campaign to the next level, appearing at a public protest with 4000 others on Alexandria’s sweeping corniche. The protest was against police brutality, and specifically the alleged death at police hands of young man after an altercation at a cafe. It was a sit-in, and meant to be silent. ElBaradei reportedly asked organisers not to chant anti-government slogans, and apparently left the protest soon after this happened anyway. He’s challenging the government, but doing it carefully, not giving Mubarak any ammunition to use against him. We love what ElBaradei is doing, and how he is doing it; using his international standing as his protection, he is really publicising the repressive nature of Mubarak’s regime. He is not trying to be president; he’s just trying to create the conditions where another president may be possible. It’s a brave move, one that other prominent figures have declined to take (Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Kofi Annan, etc.); he serves as a role model for others.