The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

ElBaradei the nucleus

The returning former IAEA chief is becoming the centre of the opposition in Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood has historically provided the main opposition to Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak. But as April's parliamentary elections approach, their internal struggles and the return to Cairo of a key reformist figure suggest that the colour of Egypt's opposition is changing.

The return of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has increased speculation that he will challenge Mubarak in the 2011 presidential elections. Mubarak has yet to announce whether he will run and commentators have suggested he is grooming his son Gamal Mubarak -- head of the ruling National Party's policy committee -- to succeed him.

That ElBaradei has not been associated with corruption and comes with a good international reputation makes him a popular contender. Further, as Magdi Abdelhadi, the BBC's Arab affairs analyst, notes, ElBaradei's appeal lies in being a civilian. Egypt has been controlled by the military since 1952.

Although he has suggested he would stand if the election could be guaranteed to be fair, or if he could run as an independent, amendments to the Egyptian constitution in 2005 make ElBaradei's challenge ineligible.

Candidates must be members of political parties that have been in existence for at least five years. Alternatively, they must be independents, endorsed by parliament and the local councils. As both forums are dominated by Mubarak's ruling party, an endorsement for ElBaradei seems somewhat unlikely.

Yet while it may be difficult for the ex-IAEA chief himself to stand, and even though he has been somewhat noncommittal about his plans, he has offered encouraging signals to Egypt's reform movement. This week he met with various opposition groups to form the National Front for Change and has opened membership to anyone demanding an alternative to the National Party.

Reports indicate that the meeting, which took place at ElBaradei's house, was attended by a mix of prominent Egyptian activists, intellectuals and politicians: leaders of the Democratic Front, the liberal Constitutional Party, the Ghad party, a faction of the Wafd party, as well as representatives of the Kefaya movement and the Sixth of April Youth. Although the Muslim Brotherhood are rumoured to have attended the meeting, which took place on Tuesday, their dominance in Egypt's opposition would appear to be waning as the focus shifts to the new man.

This is certainly not helped by divisions within the Brotherhood. The party leadership elections in late 2009 demonstrated the split between the party's older conservative elements, who invest their energy in religious and social programmes, and the largely reform-minded younger members. While the conservatives won, the reformists continue to advocate engagement with other democratic, secular opposition movements. The reform faction is preparing candidates for the April elections.

It would be foolish to expect one man to lead the charge against Mubarak and the presumed succession by Gamal. However, ElBaradei has galvanised the opposition and given it fresh momentum in the lead-up to the elections. It will be interesting to see if the presence of this new focal point for the opposition helps it shed its familiar Islamist guise.