By Edward Attwood
Mohamed ElBaradei says he is the man to give Egypt what it needs. But decades of state interference have left no obvious candidate to take control of the region’s most populous state
When Mohamed ElBaradei grabbed a megaphone to speak to crowds of protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last week, some members of the world’s media hailed it as a defining point in Egypt’s revolution. ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, is the most internationally recognised member of Egypt’s fragmented opposition. But Egyptians themselves have doubts about the man who, after all, has no political experience, and has done little to endear himself to the population since returning from exile last year.
The fact is, a considerable number of Egypt’s relatively young population know nothing other than the experience of living and working under president Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Three decades, plus the previous regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, mean that the full democratic process is unheard of in the country. No wonder ElBaradei was acclaimed, despite his previous silence. But if Egypt is searching for one unifying figure to assume the vast power vacuum left if Mubarak departs, it looks set to be disappointed.
“ElBaradei has so far failed to capture the popular imagination,” says Anoushka Kurkjian, a UK-based independent Middle East consultant. “He’s a technocrat and is someone who is seen by some protestors as jumping on the bandwagon. He hasn’t become the unifying national figure that would be needed at this stage.”
The reality is that Egypt is grasping at straws, searching for a figure to lead the country out of the mire. The thousands on the streets in Cairo want change, but they don’t want the chaos that would ensue if the country became entirely rudderless. They had a taste of that last week, when the canny Mubarak withdrew the police and security services, leading to isolated instances of looting and prison breakouts. Undeniably, the debate has now shifted to not whether Mubarak will remain in power, but for how long.
“There’s no viability to a continuation of the status quo — people don’t want it,” adds Kurkjian. “Regardless of the timeframe [of the president’s departure], people are now focusing what shape Egypt will assume in a post-Mubarak scenario.”
However, the format that Egypt’s next government will take depends largely on the manner in which the incumbent regime is despatched. If Mubarak takes the path trodden by former Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and flees the country, the ensuing power vacuum would be more than likely filled by the military.
“People are watching to see if there are any cracks between the military and Mubarak, and if there was a sudden ouster, then we could see a very different type of government than if it was a more managed transition,” says Sara Hassan, a Middle East and North Africa analyst for IHS Global Insight. “If it was more managed, then you could have liberal players from within the ruling NDP [National Democratic Party] taking part, and combined with that maybe a couple of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, with a few other members of the opposition, possibly ElBaradei in some kind of pivotal position.”
The clear favourite of the current regime is Omar Suleiman, an NDP apparatchik who has the added bonus for Western governments of being well-known for his experience in dealing with Palestinian and Israeli intelligence and security issues. Suleiman was handed the vice-presidential post by Mubarak as a clear indication that the president would not anoint his son, Gamal to the top job. This final admission that power transition in Egypt will not be dynastic is in itself a strong concession to people power. However, it seems unlikely that Sulaiman will retain his role for long.
“Sulaiman is very much made from the same mould as Mubarak,” says Kurkjian. “Egyptians want a rupture from the past, and while I don’t think Egyptians want such a departure from the status quo as to result in anarchy, they want something that is not associated with the old regime.”
The lack of a unifying figure has left Nobel Peace Prize laureate ElBaradei with a chance to have at least some impact on the make-up of the new government. ElBaradei had planned to return to Egypt to create a pro-democracy movement at the beginning of 2010, but his supporters had been conspicuous by their absence. One of the major problems that he — and other members of the opposition — have faced is that Egypt’s constitution prevents candidates even from running for seats in the country’s parliament unless they have written consent from a portion of sitting lawmakers.
Furthermore, although ElBaradei is well-known in the West, he is not universally admired. The US administration has at best mixed feelings about the man who overlooked inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities until relatively recently.
“ElBaradei made a lot of enemies during his time at the IAEA,” adds Kurkjian. “He was seen as somebody who ruffled a few feathers.”
While ElBaradei may be a voice in the next administration, few other figures have risen to prominence during the last two weeks. Other uprisings, historically, have been driven by grandstanding public speakers — like Nasser, ironically — who have the power to motivate the ‘street’. This series of protests has been led, fundamentally, by rising food prices in a country that is now the world’s largest net importer of wheat, and has been driven by the power of social media.
That lack of a unifying figure means that men like Ayman Nour have not played a prominent role in street rallies. Nour, perhaps the country’s most famous dissident, has previously tried to run against Mubarak in presidential elections, and has suffered heavily at the hands of state security forces. It’s that kind of experience which many observers feel might correlate with the experience of ordinary protesters, but he, again, has not made much of a showing.
“People might be attracted to certain figures in the opposition, not because they respect them particularly, but because there’s no alternative,” points out Hassan. “Ayman Nour, traditionally, has been able to get little support outside his local constituency — Bab Al Sharaya, a poor district in Cairo.”
In addition, Hassan says that Nour doesn’t have the charisma to lead a national revolution, nor does he have what might be termed a national blueprint for Egypt. Worse, his support in his own party appears to be limited.
“Even within his own party, people don’t like him — last year, we saw fighting within the party that led someone to torch part of the party headquarters, so we’re not talking about a strong cohesive party with him at its head,” she adds.
Other figures are few and far between. However, the biggest and most well-organised opposition in Egypt stems from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, which also has support in some Levantine countries, has hefty grassroots support all over Egypt, due to its carefully fostered network of charities and local organisations. However, again, it lacks a plan for overall government and has no focus on key social issues like health and education. Furthermore, the Brotherhood has also been accused of breaking the law, and has several key members in jail. In a sign that the organisation has no intention of hijacking the populist agenda of the national protest movement, some imprisoned Brotherhood members who had escaped jail when prison officers fled have now returned to open unguarded prisons, to prove that they are following the laws of the country.
“They are not in a strong position, and even if there were free and fair elections in November, I don’t think either the Muslim Brotherhoods or the current opposition parties would have been able to capture a huge majority, even if conditions were perfect,” says Hassan. “They are just not strong enough and internal problems have left them very weak. They have had a lot of problems trying to elect a new leader, and they are quite divided, so altogether they are not the strong force that people thought. The same, frankly, goes for the other opposition parties.”
It seems likely, then, that a military figure would be best placed to take on overall control in Egypt, at least in the interim, and potentially more long-term. The army — unlike the police and the highly developed network of state security services connected to the interior ministry — is still highly respected in Egypt. Furthermore, fears that another military figure would simply set up another Mubarak-like figure may well be unfounded.
“Yes, appointing another officer from the armed forces would be more of the same, but anyone stepping up to the plate now realises that Egypt needs political and economic reforms,” says Kurkjian.
“Unless they reform the institutions, dismantle the police state and allow a semblance of accountability, then Egypt will continue on its current line.”
At the time of going to press, the waiting game is still being played. The average protestor on the street may well be baying for Mubarak’s immediate downfall, but an orderly transition of rule over a period of several months may well be the best way forward both for Egypt’s economy and its people. It could even play into the hands of the fragmented opposition movement, allowing it to organise into a potent force for real change.
“The opposition just hasn’t been very vocal — until now it seems very disorganised and very spontaneous,” Hassan says.
“Because of years and years of repression, the structures are not there for any kind of strong opposition to emerge. Even a shadow cabinet or anything of that nature hasn’t been spoken of at all. It’s all very quiet, and that in itself is worrying.”
He is not the man to lead Egypt. He is too much under the USA thumb as has been seen during the investigation for WMD's in Iraq and nuclear activity in Iran.