By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 10, 2010; A11
CAIRO -- "Change" is not a word often associated with Egypt. Ruled since 1981 by President Hosni Mubarak, this country of about 80 million turns more like an aircraft carrier than a Mini Cooper. Activists have found that trying to amend restrictive laws is like navigating Cairo's traffic -- painfully slow.
And yet, for the first time in nearly three decades, there is real uncertainty over whether Mubarak, now 81 and ailing, will seek reelection. With a presidential contest scheduled for 2011, it is possible he will promote his son Gamal as a candidate, but many others are loudly clamoring for an end to the ruling party's monopolistic rule.
Perhaps most surprising is the degree to which young democracy activists, old-time liberals, Communists, workers' rights activists and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood have all begun to rally around an unusual icon, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in their quest to usher in a post-Mubarak Egypt.
"I do not want to see the whole Egyptian people feel protected by my presence," ElBaradei said in an interview this week at his villa on the road between Cairo and Alexandria, just past the Pyramids. But he seemed delighted as well as wary about the attention. "They really have to fight for their freedom whether I'm there or not. There is an over-expectation of what I could do."
It appears unlikely that ElBaradei, the 2005 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, will mount an open challenge to Mubarak, his son Gamal, or whomever the ruling party nominates. He has refused to join an existing party and says that he will seek the presidency only if lawmakers first approve a detailed list of reforms.
How the coming months unfold in Egypt is of enormous importance to the United States, which relies on Egypt as a partner in regional matters such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and as a political leader. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush pushed Egypt hard to become less authoritarian, saying that moderation was a key to eradicating terrorism.
But later in his presidency, Bush eased up on that campaign, and there has been little sign that President Obama has restored it.
Mubarak advisers say they do not feel strong pressure, from outside or within. "You have a process of change. It's happening," said Ali El Dean Hillal, a spokesman for Mubarak's National Democratic Party. "But if you are expecting something dramatic, something totally and entirely unexpected, it is unlikely. In Egypt, change comes slowly. Whatever succession happens in Egypt, it will go by the book. This land is not a country of adventurism."
The ruling party justifies the slow pace of change by saying that democracy is a learning process. Last month, aides publicized Mubarak's surgery abroad to remove his gallbladder and a tumor instead of shrouding it in secrecy as they did during an earlier absence. Party officials cite as evidence of progress the number of opposition newspapers and call-in shows that discuss the political situation more openly today than in earlier years.
Still, there remains little freedom of expression and few basic political rights. Egypt is still ruled by a decades-old emergency law that the leadership says is needed to prevent terrorism, but that is also used to thwart the growth of political challengers. Among other things, the law prohibits gatherings of more than five people without a permit. "Whichever criteria you look at shows that freedom has significantly deteriorated during the past five years," said Essam el-Erian, a top Muslim Brotherhood member who was released from prison this week after a two-month detention for being part of an illegal organization.
"We may differ on details, or references and ideologies, but this doesn't mean we can't cooperate," Eryan said of the admiration that his group and others have expressed for ElBaradei. "We agree on comprehensive political and constitutional reform."
ElBaradei said he didn't plan any of the mania that has surrounded him since he returned to Egypt -- he didn't come home intending to become the opposition's savior. His recent visitors have included Mohammed Saad al-Katani, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's de facto parliamentary faction, as well as representatives of the 6th of April movement, a mostly youth-led pro-democracy group that led a rally in Cairo on Tuesday at which about 90 people were arrested.
"There is no pressure of any kind on the Mubarak regime," said Ahmed Maher, 29, general coordinator of the 6th of April movement. "This has made the security services more brutal."
ElBaradei did not attend the rally, but instead tweeted about the police crackdown. "My role is not to run to every little demonstration around Cairo," he said.
ElBaradei's international status and domestic popularity have put Mubarak's party in a more difficult position than during the last presidential campaign, in 2005, when it sought actively to tarnish the challenger, Ayman Nour, who was later jailed for four years on allegations that he forged campaign signatures. Still, there have been attempts to discredit ElBaradei in the press, and some of his most strident student supporters have been jailed.
"People are entitled to criticize him. Some of his followers look at him like a saint. This is not a saint," Mohamed Kamal, a ruling party official, said of ElBaradei.
The Obama administration allocated $1.3 million this year for unregistered Egyptian civil society groups, a slight increase over 2008, the last year of the Bush administration. Obama wants to see free elections "in which the Egyptian people can have confidence," said Tamara Cofman Wittes, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. "The promotion of democracy and human rights is a priority."
One person who has suffered from Egypt's crackdown on civil society activists is Nour. Since his release, he says, state security has torpedoed an opportunity to teach law at a private university and to host a TV show. What's new today, compared with when he ran in 2005, he says, is that people are more focused on "an alternative to Mubarak."
But the challenge that ElBaradei faces in explaining how democracy can impact ordinary people is stark just off Sudan Street in Ard El Lewa, or "the Land of the General," a poor Cairo neighborhood.
Mohamed Moursi has never heard of ElBaradei. The 44-year-old father of five is simply worried about selling enough nectarines to support his family. He is stunned when asked whether he likes Mubarak. "Is there anybody who doesn't like Hosni Mubarak?" he asks. "He's our president.''