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ElBaradei rattles official Egypt by mulling presidential run

CAIRO – Once upon a time, Mohamed ElBaradei was Egypt's favorite son. He was extolled in the media as his achievements mounted.

The nation looked on proudly as he was elected three times to the post of director general of the powerful International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), admired his courage when he publicly disputed the U.S. rationale behind the invasion of Iraq, and applauded his success as a national victory when he and the IAEA won the Nobel Peace Prize for striving to prevent the spread of nuclear energy for military use. In recognition, he was awarded the highest accolade in Egypt, the Nile Medal.

Image: IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei
Caren Firouz / Reuters file

Mohamed ElBaradei speaks during an agency press conference in Tehran on Oct. 4, 2009. 

But once he stepped down from the IAEA and stated publicly he would be willing to run for president in Egypt's 2011 election, a position held by President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak for the past 28 years, his most vocal supporters began a campaign of vilification. 

Not so fast say pro-government newspapers

In a November press statement, ElBaradei, 67, threw down the gauntlet. He said he would respond to the calls coming from a segment of the Egyptian public who "wish to usher Egypt into a new era of reform and comprehensive change based on true democracy and social justice." He said he would run for president, but only if the government would guarantee free and fair elections monitored by the judiciary and international observers and if they would change the constitution to open the presidential race to all Egyptians, not just party members. 

The pro-government Egyptian newspapers immediately went into overdrive in an effort to tarnish ElBaradei's once sterling image. Leading the charge was the Al Ahram newspaper, which had once called him "an icon for the modern era" after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. 

The editor-in-chief of Al Ahram, Osama Saraya, described ElBaradei as a foreigner and a U.S. lackey. "ElBaradei's remarks were tantamount to a constitutional coup and opened a door for George W. Bush's policy of constructive chaos into Egypt," wrote Saraya.  He called the former head of the IAEA "ill-informed and an American stooge" and claimed ElBaradei holds dual citizenship.  "A presidential candidate must be fully Egyptian and not, like ElBaradei, hold a Swedish passport." 

Saraya also invoked the politics of fear by writing, "ElBaradei's remarks open the door for Islamist fundamentalists to have access to power and this in turn opens the gates of hell in Egypt." He was presumably referring to the fact that the largest opposition party in Egypt, the religious Muslim Brotherhood, is banned from elections and its candidates have to run as independents. Other semi-state sponsored newspapers followed suit with their own attacks and one even ran a cartoon portraying him as "Uncle Sam."

Underestimated popularity

But the media frenzy caused a backlash. Editors had underestimated ElBaradei's credibility and widespread popularity. A Facebook group dedicated to his election has attracted over 24,000 members, many of whom have professed their support for his candidacy on the site.

"ElBaradei showed that his love for his country and his commitment to his principles were greater than any personal consideration or interests…The moral integrity puts ElBaradei above many men in Egypt who would never dare to oppose President Mubarak or anyone from his family," enthused one Facebook fan. "We want to show him that his inspiring message has reached us and, that we love and respect him and that with him we will do our utmost to bring about a renaissance in Egypt," the supporter added. "Democracy is the solution."

Opposition parties rushed to support ElBaradei as Egypt's first credible and unimpeachable candidate powerful enough to run against Mubarak, and some have invited him to join their ranks, an offer he has declined in favor of running as an independent. 

After the semi-state run media launched their campaign of attacks, the opposition press focused on the 180-degree shift in views. In the Wafd newspaper, journalist Magdy Salam wrote an article titled "ElBaradei has Unveiled the Schizophrenia of Government Newspapers" comparing previous generous praise to the current vilification of the Nobel Prize winner.  "I have said that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are ruling the government newspapers," he concluded.

Even some Mubarak supporters were disappointed by the personal attacks on ElBaradei. Maged Helmy, a security firm employee and his 22-year-old son Ahmed, trust Mubarak's economic policies and will vote for him in 2011, but they resent the press campaign.

"The press attacked ElBaradei because he wants to run for president. It's a crime in Egypt. I don't like to attack someone because he wants to run for president. It is not a crime. It is democracy," said Ahmed. His father agreed. "The press campaign is not right. They must say he is very good and famous man and a genius. We must not attack him. It is wrong."

Taking a different tack
The pro-government press appears to have taken note of public disapproval. Now the official media suggest that ElBaradei's demands for democratic reforms do not make him an agent of change but rather, a source of instability who is cynically manipulating Egyptian law for his own gains. 

"If we are to take ElBaradei seriously, we must also ask him to take Egyptians seriously and not ask them to dismantle our existing constitution and institutions so as to tailor new conditions to permit his nomination for the presidency, without him taking part in the necessary reform process," Abdul Muneim, the CEO of Al Ahram newspaper wrote in the newspaper's week English language edition.

Muneim also took issue with the idea that ElBaradei was some sort of hero coming into save Egypt writing, "This is not the Egyptian way. Egypt is not a damsel pining for her knight to race home from Vienna on his white charger. Nor is it the type of country where change is made by the stroke of a pen or at the behest of a single individual, even if that individual is a Nobel Prize laureate." 

Rania Al Malky, chief editor of the independent Daily News, a Cairo-based English language newspaper, commented on how the mainstream media has changed course. "Now the 'Constitutional Coup' is in the headlines. They are spinning what [ElBaradei] said in a way that is negative. They try to take one word and use it against him in a way to make it look like he is destabilizing the country, [that he is] a western imperialist agent." 

'In Egypt, the dead vote'

Still, at the end of the day, most Egyptians believe the current regime and its restrictive election laws will dash the hopes of an ElBaradei candidacy. 

"I think this whole thing will never happen.  He has no chance of running considering constitutional changes in March. He cannot secure the 250 endorsements needed to run," said Al Malky, referring to Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution which sets out the conditions which candidates must meet in order to run. As a result of the 2007 amendment, candidates must secure 250 signatures from two legislative houses, both of which are controlled by the ruling party.

Aly Ibrahim, a Cairo plumber, insisted that he won't bother voting in the next election. He insisted that even if ElBaradei does run, election rigging would prevent his victory.

"He won't win. Those who are on the seat will only leave when they are dead, like in all the Arab countries," said Ibrahim. He added that the hallmarks of election abuse in past elections will likely occur again. "The president gets 98 or 99 percent of the vote. The results are known beforehand. The ones they want to win will win. In Egypt, the dead vote," he laughed, alluding to a practice of registering deceased voters.