Editorial: ElBaradei and the intoxication of hope

Rania Al Malky
7 Min Read

Hans Christian Andersen was a genius. Two centuries on and the vast oeuvre of children’s stories left behind by the Danish author lives on. More than simple flights of fancy, his cautionary tales inspire both young and old, taking on new life and meaning at different times and diverse places.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes is one such timeless classic that is of particular relevance to Egypt today.

An Emperor who cares for nothing but his wardrobe, hires two weavers who promise him the finest suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position. The Emperor cannot actually see the cloth, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they dress him in mime and the Emperor then marches in procession before his subjects. A child in the crowd calls out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all, and his remark is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but holds himself up proudly and continues the procession.

An analogy between former nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei’s calls for change and the child in Andersen’s story naturally lends itself. ElBaradei’s return to Egypt with his uncompromising courage to speak truth to power echoes the untainted spontaneity of the insightful child, but also the child’s niavete as well as that of the throngs who followed him.

In the end, the Emperor (Egypt’s ruling regime) continues his procession, with the same blind arrogance and pretentiousness that gave a couple of two-bit swindlers power over him. Though he knows that the words of the child and his ensuing chorus may be true, the Emperor has no intention of admitting he was duped.

It’s hard not to be touched by the sudden bout of enthusiasm triggered by the truthful cries of a man whose international standing and air of personal integrity is unmitigated by any association with Egypt’s current regime. ElBaradei’s welcome appearance on the political arena has infused many with hope. Even if he cannot join the 2011 presidential race, his bid to rally the opposition to agitate for the amendment of some flagrantly anti-democratic articles in the constitution is a commendable effort in itself.

That said, I reacted to news of ElBaradei’s decision earlier this week to head the newly formed “National Coalition for Change with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation.

Bringing together leaders of the Democratic Front party, the Liberal Constitutional Party, the Ghad party, a faction of the Wafd party and representatives from protest movements Kefaya and the April 6 Youth, the coalition will collect signatures to lobby the government to amend parts of the constitution which make it impossible for independents to run in presidential elections, and to revoke Emergency Law, which has been in place since 1981, and allows random arrests and detention without charge.

Hats off to ElBaradei for managing to galvanize the opposition for what any semi-literate would agree is a pillar of free and fair elections and a cornerstone of a truly democratic system.

As blogger Baheyya aptly put it, “I think he’s [ElBaradei] doing more than launching a symbolic campaign. He’s raising the costs of electoral engineering for the Mubarak regime, making 2010 and 2011 the toughest polls yet in Mubarak’s tenure.

What’s more, ElBaradei’s entry comes at a time when the regime is at its weakest. the bureaucracy is riven with unbelievable corruption and civil servant protests, and all social classes are literally fed up.

But this is precisely where my trepidation comes in. It’s not the first time for members of the opposition to call for these changes or to pose such a threat, so why should we expect different results this time? Didn’t the same electrifying enthusiasm resound on the streets and in cyberspace in 2005 with Kefaya at the helm?

We all know what later happened to Kefaya.

As Baheyya also said, ElBaradei’s emergence will mean “that the regime will have to work harder than it ever has to weather the electoral cycle. But considering the dynamics of power in Egypt at the moment, how hard does the regime really need to work to achieve its objectives, whatever they are?

It is unclear at the moment whether the new coalition will be able to collect the number of signatures necessary to demand constitutional change. But even if the signatures are secured, doesn’t the NDP-dominated People’s Assembly still have the final say in approving, denying (or worse still, postponing indefinitely) any discussion of proposals related to constitutional amendments? No matter what legal loopholes are utilized to make the necessary changes, time has shown over and over again that the regime always finds a way to impose its will, for better or for worse.

Intoxicated by the rush of renewed hope, many have overlooked the fact that what is more dangerous than what the current administration is capable of doing to nip the plans of ElBaradei’s group in the bud, is the opposition’s own capacity to self-destruct.

The Wafd, Nasserist and Tagammu parties are already absent from the coalition. So in the best-case scenario, if ElBaradei by some miracle is legally allowed to run, the romantic notion that all the opposition forces will unanimously back him is far-fetched. A divide and conquer strategy can only be effective with an inherently fragile union, which is sadly the case here.

How can we guarantee that Egypt’s notoriously fragmented opposition won’t let ElBaradei and the masses who believed in him down? Why should we trust the opposition?

Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.

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