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Opinion: What will it take for change to come to Egypt?

Mohamed ElBaradei went home with an idea: to help people exercise their freedom.

Mohamed ElBaradei speaks in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 7, 2005, when he was director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Now he has returned to Egypt and is likely setting himself up to challenge President Hosni Mubarak in the next elections. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

PALO ALTO — Not so long ago, when an American president wanted help in the Arab world, he would call Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, who was routinely known as America’s closest ally in the Middle East.

When Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian Liberation Organization leader, gave a furious anti-American speech, the White House said it was Mubarak’s call that convinced President Ronald Reagan to continue discussion with the PLO.

When President Bill Clinton worried that Iraq would flout United Nations resolutions on weapons inspections, he called Mubarak and asked him to put pressure on Baghdad. Mubarak agreed, and the next day Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy prime minster, hopped on a plane for Cairo.

That was then. But over the last decade, Mubarak has squandered his influence. Now, when a president or secretary of state wants to rally support for an American policy in the Middle East, he (or she) flies to Riyadh.

Mubarak has ruled Egypt for 29 years, ever since the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He is hardly the only dictator in the Middle East. Aside from Israel, Lebanon and now Iraq, the entire region is ruled by monarchs and assorted potentates. But Mubarak thrived as a friend to the West by rhetorically styling his regime as a “moderate Arab state.”

But then came Egypt’s election in 2005. Ahead of it, Mubarak arrested Ayman Nour, an opposition leader. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled a scheduled trip to Cairo in protest. And after Mubarak’s shock troops harassed voters, closed polling stations and imprisoned political opponents during the elections, Washington cooled toward Cairo. The moderate label was forever lost. Mubarak used to visit the White House every year. When he arrived for a visit last August, it was his first in five years.

Now, Mubarak is 81 years old. His country is stagnant and alone, his people discouraged and poor. The average per-capita income remains mired at about $1,800 a year. Maybe that’s why so many Egyptians were excited by Mohamed ElBaradei’s brief visit home late last month.

Read more about the questions he left in his wake when he returned to Vienna early this week.

Elbaradei has been away for three decades, serving for the last 12 as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Along the way he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now, he is setting himself up to challenge Mubarak. Might he be the one who shatters Egypt’s unfortunate political stalemate?