Is Egypt on the brink?

Editor's note: In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great forged a path from Greece through the modern Middle East to Persia. It was a path of conquest that empires would follow through the ages. Traces of each can be seen today in the culture, monuments, continuing military presence and people along the route, which ended for Alexander in Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. In this project, GlobalPost correspondent Theodore May sets out to see how Alexander’s influence lives on. He will be blogging about his travels at Backpacking to Babylon.

CAIRO, Egypt — It is turning into the summer of Egypt’s discontent.

Over the last couple of months, protesters here have camped in front of parliament to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Since the end of May, activists have taken to the streets of Cairo, condemning their government’s role in the blockade of Gaza. And angry demonstrations recently erupted across the country’s north in response to the brutal police killing of a 28-year-old man.

The state security apparatus, in turn, has responded furiously, unleashing plain-clothes officers to break up demonstrations, beat protesters and hustle them away in unmarked cars.

It is a level of disaffection not seen in Egypt’s recent history.

“It’s a turning point in Egyptian history,” said Alaa Al Aswany, a prominent Egyptian author and public intellectual. “We are in a very similar moment to 1949, when the people realized that the old system is no longer valid, but they don’t yet know what form the new life will take.”

As the public dissatisfaction grows, however, the man who is supposed to be leading the opposition is now floundering to unite his ranks. And skepticism over the potential of his fledgling campaign for political change in Egypt has begun to emerge.

Many in the media and the political opposition swooned when Mohamed ElBaradei arrived in Egypt in February promising to push for change. He had international credibility, having served as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency for 12 years — a fact that would make it difficult for the Egyptian government to discredit him.

But Egypt’s opposition is made up of an eclectic mix of communists, democrats, Islamists and others. And ElBaradei is under fire from all corners for running what they view as a meek campaign.
ElBaradei has a “quarter million fans on Facebook, but on the ground, how does this translate?” asked Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian blogger, activist and government critic.

ElBaradei does make public appearances, but his criticism of the ruling National Democratic Party has been tempered and his own policy positions have been vague. He said he would only run for president during elections in the fall if electoral reform happens first. On top of that, ElBaradei has continued to split his time between Egypt and Europe, drawing complaints that he is trying to lead a revolution in absentia.

“To be far from Egypt, to travel for so long, is not suitable for his campaign of change,” said Diaa Rashwan, a scholar at the government run Al-Ahram Center.

To el-Hamalawy, ElBaradei is too much a part of the establishment — both domestically and internationally — to represent a clean enough break from the era of President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since 1981 but is believed to be in failing health.

“That’s the problem. That’s not a positive thing,” he said, discussing ElBaradei’s international credibility.

There is cause, though, for ElBaradei to advance his campaign cautiously. Egypt’s ruling party has a history of cracking down on opposition groups.

The last man to be heralded as an agent of change in Egypt saw just how relentless the government can be. Ayman Nour became something of a folk hero in Egypt, running an unabashedly anti-Mubarak presidential campaign in 2005 and coming in second with 7 percent of the vote. Three-and-a-half months later he was sentenced to five years in prison on fraud charges, evoking an outcry from the international community.

Nour and ElBaradei are very different men and very different candidates, but Nour’s story serves as a cautionary tale for any politician standing in opposition to the current government.

Despite disagreements within the ranks of the opposition, ElBaradei’s camp insists that the campaign is going as planned and says that disagreements within Egypt’s opposition are to be expected.

“In fact, we were not surprised by the reaction of many Egyptian opponents,” said Abdulrahman Yusuf, head of an online Facebook group aimed at boosting ElBaradei’s candidacy. “There are different agendas and there are conflicting ideologies. We are betting on the street and on the simple, ordinary Egyptian citizen who I think never let us down until now.”

With the presidential election planned for late 2011, ElBaradei has just over a year to win over his skeptics in the opposition, capture the imagination of the ordinary Egyptian citizen and deliver on the change so many are expecting from him.