CAIRO: What is it about Mohamed ElBaradei that has captured the imagination of Egyptians, young and old, from all walks of life? What has triggered the formation of a group supporting his candidacy for the 2011 presidential elections on Facebook and led members of the April 6 Youth Movement to risk arrest simply to spray graffiti on the walls of a central Cairo district, urging Egyptians to support him and welcome him at the airport as he arrived yesterday, despite security warnings that such a gathering will not be tolerated?
Could it be because ElBaradei is the former Secretary General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a post he won with no backing from the Egyptian government? Or perhaps it’s because he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts as the head of the IAEA and his relentless challenge to Washington as it sought to fraudulently convince the world that Iraq had nuclear weapons before invading it anyway?
For many of his supporters, whether young or old, ElBaradei’s career accomplishments, his education – with a PhD in international law from a prestigious US university – as well as his wide-ranging experience as an international negotiator, may just be added value to his most important asset as a potential presidential candidate: his complete dissociation from Egypt’s current regime.
Untainted by any connections with a 30-year-old administration that has lost its credibility in the eyes of the vast majority of the Egyptian population, ElBaradei’s hints at possibly considering having a go at the next presidential vote was like a straw dangled before a drowning nation; one that has lost hope of achieving its most basic human, civil and political rights.
ElBaradei’s perceived integrity and the embarrassment he caused the regime when he told the international and local press in late 2009 that he would only join the race if he could guarantee that elections would be free, fully supervised by the judiciary and monitored by the international community, instantly turned him into a hero. Ironically, his newfound “savior status only blossomed in inverse proportion with the smear campaign spearheaded by the usual suspects at the helm of the state-run media.
Unconcerned with the petty pandering of lesser men, who, as soon as they leave their international posts find no qualms in singing the praises of the regime to secure power and prestige in a cushy job back home, ElBaradei steadily came to epitomize the Egyptians’ ideal for change that is long overdue.
It is understandable how we crave this change, when a national study conducted in collaboration with UNICEF, launched just last Tuesday, reveals that more than 7 million children in Egypt are deprived of one or more of their rights, which include the right to nutrition, water and sanitation facilities, access to basic health care services, shelter, education, participation and protection, according to an article published in this newspaper yesterday.
ElBaradei arrived just as street protests began to flare up once more: doctors demanding a mere LE 1,000 minimum wage; railway workers and Tanta Flax laborers asking for their basic financial compensation; victims of floods in Aswan clashing with the city council for its slow response to the loss of their homes and displacement; Christians vocalizing their discontent as sectarian tensions reach a head in Upper Egypt. The list of grievances can go on ad infinitum.
It is no surprise that ElBaradei’s return would be met with such fanfare, even though the number of people who actually braved the trip to the airport did not exceed a few hundred. The people are desperate for change and have chosen to exercise their right to demand it, come what may, even as they see the leaders of the country’s most potent opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood, being rounded up in illegal detention just to set an example. One’s reservations about the integrity of the Brotherhood is immaterial, since the treatment meted out to them is but an example of the fate of anyone who dares express dissent across the political spectrum.
The fact is, however, that unless ElBaradei, backed by a solid, united opposition (in itself a distant dream) decides to wage an all-out war against the regime to force constitutional amendments to article 76 regulating presidential elections – which in its currant state would not qualify him for the presidential race – there is no glimmer of hope that change will ever come.
In order for ElBaradei to simply have the opportunity to face-off against Egypt’s de facto coming ruler, Gamal Mubarak – the incumbent’s son and head of the ruling National Democratic Party’s powerful policies secretariat – at the polls, the regime itself has to instigate the change.
But, realistically, what are the odds of that ever happening?
Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote pertinently comes to mind: Like the delusional Spanish knight-errant, who wanders the land seeking adventure in an act of chivalrous wish-fulfillment, Egyptian supporters of this new hero might soon discover that they’ve been chasing windmills and slip into a great melancholy.
At the end of the story, Don Quixote, having restored his sanity and realizing that he is merely the retired country gentlemen in his fifties whose real name is Alonso Quixano, loses faith as his alter ego dissolves into thin air.
In the final scene of this tragic-comic drama, Quixano dies: wise but broken.
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.