By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 31, 2011; 2:27 PM
CAIRO - The decision by Egypt's opposition groups to tap Mohamed ElBaradei, the country's high-profile advocate of democratic reform, to act as their interlocutor with the government marks the first real attempt to organize behind a common voice since protests began a week ago.
But whether or not ElBaradei, 68, a Nobel Peace laureate who has spent much of his life abroad, can successfully lead demonstrators to their ultimate goal of removing President Hosni Mubarak from office and launching a democratic transition remains unknown.
In Cairo on Sunday, ElBaradei said he has the "popular and political support" necessary to begin the process of forming a unity government and that he would be seeking contact with the army to discuss a political transition. "Once Mubarak is out, you will see that a lot of these demonstrators will go home," he told CBS's "Face the Nation." "We are capable here of running a smooth transitional period."'
Since a triumphant return home in February 2010 after decades abroad as a diplomat for the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency and in other postings, ElBaradei's allure here has faded a bit. The activists who spurred this week's countrywide protests say he spent too much time abroad during the nine months leading up to this critical moment.
"He sparked the change," said Hala ElBarkouky, an Egyptian investment banker and financial consultant who participated in a steering committee meeting of sorts convened by democracy activists Sunday. But "he was not there for the people."
ElBaradei is not "a leader that stands out who can unify everybody," she added.
ElBaradei was endorsed Sunday by several pro-democracy groups and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and best-organized opposition group.
But he received only a lukewarm reception when he spoke with a bullhorn late Sunday at Tahrir Square, the capital city's central plaza, and protesters seemed more inclined to operate as a diffuse people's movement than to rally around a chosen leader.
A year ago, young democracy activists, old-time liberals, Communists, workers' rights activists and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood rallied around ElBaradei with fervor, hungry for a figure that could unify a disjointed opposition.
Everyone from Mohammed Saad al-Katani, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's de facto parliamentary faction, to representatives of the 6th of April youth movement flocked to see him at his villa on the road between Cairo and Alexandria just past the Giza pyramids.
A former, longtime director general of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog organization and winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, ElBaradei has spent more of his life in abroad than in Cairo. That point is often highlighted by his detractors in the ruling National Democratic Party, as they try to discredit him as a potential challenger to Mubarak in presidential elections currently scheduled for September.
He studied law at New York University and later worked as a diplomat at Egypt's mission to the United Nations before joining the U.N., turning him into more of a rabid New York Knicks fan than a backer of Egypt's national soccer team.
Last year, ElBaradei's National Coalition for Change collected a million signatures from people demanding a new constitution and free elections. After that, he was rarely seen in the country, as democracy activists struggled to keep their push to oust Mubarak alive amid challenges from security services.
During demonstrations last April at which protesters were beaten, ElBaradei tweeted from home about the police crackdown. "My role is not to run to every little demonstration around Cairo," he said at the time.
ElBaradei never necessarily wanted to run for president, people close to him say. Over the past year he positioned himself more as a thinker and a freedom advocate than a politician looking for votes. "I do not want to see the whole Egyptian people feel protected by my presence," he said in an interview in April.
As head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, ElBaradei was a vocal critic of the Bush administration's assertions regarding Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction program in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. Subsequently, the Bush administration sought ways to oust him from his position. But he remained in charge of the agency until his retirement in November 2009.
On Sunday, he was once again critical of the United States, this time of President Obama's continued backing of the current regime.
"People expected the U.S. to be on the side of the people," ElBaradei told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "They need to let go of Mubarak."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.