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ElBaradei leaves Cairo ... for now

The former nuclear watchdog chief is most-talked-about critic — and potential rival — of Hosni Mubarak.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, at his villa Feb. 27, 2010. One of Egypt's best-known international figures, ElBaradei has stirred up politics by saying he might make a presidential bid in 2011 if a fair vote is guaranteed. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

CAIRO, Egypt —After 10 days of stirring up the usually stagnant waters of Egyptian politics, Mohammed ElBaradei this week returned to his home base in Vienna, leaving behind an enlivened opposition and mounting speculation over his potential presidential candidacy.

ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), arrived in Egypt on Feb. 19 after more than 20 years abroad to an outpouring of domestic support and media frenzy. As the country prepares for a presidential election scheduled for September 2011, ElBaradei has emerged as the most-talked-about critic of the 29-year rule of president Hosni Mubarak.

But despite growing public fascination with the internationally respected and domestically popular reformer, experts say Egypt has a long way to go before it witnesses any real political change. Pitted against a highly disciplined, repressive police state led by president Hosni Mubarak, who at 81 is rumored to be grooming his younger son Gamal to succeed him, ElBaradei and his supporters will be fighting an uphill battle to continue the momentum of his homecoming.

“The regime is going to be playing defense here and the opposition is going to have to play offense,” says Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University. “This is the regime’s game to lose — not ElBaradei’s to win. And the Egyptian regime has proven many, many times before that’s it’s up to the task of being cohesive and being unified when facing a potential opposition challenge.”

Though some feel Mubarak has squandered his influence, particularly with the West, and left Egypt open to the possibility of ElBaradei.

Before ElBaradei left, leading members of the opposition political elite coalesced behind him to create the National Association for Change — a loosely bound alliance of pro-reform parties and domestic opposition leaders with plans to collect signatures to challenge constitutional amendments passed in 2005 and 2007, which place stringent limits on who can contest the presidency.

Amendment 76, passed in 2005 and amended again in 2007, requires an independent candidate gather 250 signatures from a combination of local and parliamentary officials to qualify for the ballot, a practically impossible feat. It also stipulates a political party holding at least 3 percent of seats in parliament that has been established for at least 5 years may nominate a candidate who has served for at least one year in a senior leadership position within the party — both prerequisites effectively bar ElBaradei from running for the office.

In order to win the legal battle the association has set out for itself, observers say ElBaradei will first have to reach out to the masses — something the current opposition in Egypt has never done successfully.

“To a great extent those who are gathering around ElBaradei are the identifiable names who have been part of the movement for the last 10-15 years,” says Adel Iskandar, professor of media and communications at Georgetown University in Washington. “Whether or not ElBaradei is actually speaking for the average Egypt, the average Egyptian constituting at least 85 percent of the Egyptian population, I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case.”