ElBaradei leaves Cairo ... for now

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.”

But drawing on the support of average Egyptians is the only way to create the national momentum the association needs in order to successfully pressure the state to change the constitution.

That might prove to be a difficult feat. “This seems to be a very Cairo-based movement,” says Stacher. “The challenges are expanding it to be a real nationwide movement, penetrating the villages, provincial towns and provincial capitals and really drawing on a grassroots basis … they’re going to have to set up networks of communication, they’re going to have to have developed pretty sophisticated ways to get their message across and the state’s going to be there the whole time, harassing people and throwing people in jail.”

It appears the regime will fight to the death, most likely the death of the opposition. In the past, the government has successfully chipped away at other pro-democratic reform movements and potential challengers using a variety of tactics with high rates of success.

Throwing supporters in jail, charging people with tax evasion, routinely detaining opposition figures and subjecting them to torture are just a few of the tools the regime has used in the past and will likely use again.

Stacher believes it will be worse for those who dare to publicly support ElBaradei than for the candidate himself. “ElBaradei they can’t really touch, he is an international figure, but they can go after his network, relentlessly,” he said.

Experts agree the only way to survive the projected onslaught will be to really galvanize the opposition and keep them together. “The major challenge is to be able to hold steadfast, to find some degree of consensus and unanimity amongst themselves over issues that matter the most and how to actually execute. Without those three components it’s going to be very difficult for this coalition to move forward,” says Iskandar.

The state has already launched public attempts to discredit ElBaradei; state-controlled media has repeatedly suggested he is not Egyptian enough after having lived abroad for the last quarter-century. And although its hard to tell in country with no opinion polling whether or not the state-sponsored character assassination will work, it will certainly have an effect.

“If it’s redundant, and it’s repetitive and it’s frequent and it’s drilled there’s a tendency to believe it, and I think without an opposing course that would critique this negative press that ElBaradei is getting, he may very well lose a substantial portion of what could have been his popular base,” says Iskandar.

But despite the challenges, members of ElBaradei’s coalition remain hopeful for the prospect for change.

“ElBaradei for me is a candle in the dark,” says Ahmed Salah, leading member of Six of April Youth, an anti-Mubarak protest group that is supporting ElBaradei’s right to run. “We need someone with his weight, with his status, with his reputation, to come in this stillwater pool and move the water, giving back light to some of the people who have lost all hope.”

Hope is one thing, creating change is another. With the deck stacked against them, it appears ElBaradei and his supporters will have a long way to go before accomplishing the latter.