Former U.N. official Mohamed ElBaradei, the unlikely face of Egypt's protesters

By Colum Lynch and Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 8:08 PM

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning former United Nations bureaucrat, has emerged this week as an improbable revolutionary, clamoring for the overthrow of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak.

On Wednesday, as pro-Mubarak mobs attacked protesters in Tahrir Square, ElBaradei appealed to the Egyptian army to break with the nation's aging leader and defend the demonstrators. "This is yet another symptom, or another indication, of a criminal regime using criminal acts," ElBaradei said, according to al-Jazeera. "My fear is that it will turn into a bloodbath."

Earlier this week, he scolded the United States for refusing to withdraw its support for Mubarak.

ElBaradei's transformation from a high-profile U.N. official with a home in Vienna to a key player in Egypt's popular uprising follows a lackluster year-long campaign to enter his native country's politics, both as an advocate of democracy and as a possible presidential candidate in this year's elections.

His fortunes changed this week as Egypt's fragmented opposition movement, lacking a clear leader, coalesced around him and put him forward as their representative in talks with the government.

But it remains unclear whether ElBaradei, 68, can lead demonstrators to their ultimate goal of removing Mubarak from office and launching a democratic transition.

"He's a distant figure," said Michael Wahid Hanna, an expert on Egyptian politics at the Century Foundation, noting that ElBaradei is a political novice with virtually no grass-roots following. "He's not a populist leader; he's not charismatic. . . . He doesn't have any moral authority to dictate to the protesters what sort of deal may be acceptable."

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 abroad than in Cairo.

He studied law at New York University and later worked as a diplomat at Egypt's mission to the United Nations before joining the organization, becoming a more ardent fan of the New York Knicks than of Egypt's national soccer team.

He returned to Egypt in February 2010, and his organization, the National Coalition for Change, collected 1 million signatures 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 the 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.

Some activists behind the recent protests say ElBaradei spent too much time abroad during the nine months leading up to this critical moment. "He sparked the change," said Hala El Barkouky, an Egyptian investment banker and financial consultant who participated in a meeting 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.

Still, he could play a vital role for many of same reasons that he never emerged as a credible national leader, according to Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University. "He's not affiliated with any political trends, he's kind of old, and he is well known in Western capitals - he can reassure," Lynch said.

ElBaradei, he notes, is "extremely well placed to reassure all constituencies which need reassuring that he is not likely to stick around forever and be the next Mubarak."

The Obama administration has not said publicly whether it supports a leadership role for ElBaradei or any other figures during the transition, saying it is up to Egyptians to decide.

ElBaradei, who served as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1997 to 2009, has negotiated with some of the world's toughest rogue regimes, including Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran and Kim Jong Il's North Korea.

He infuriated American conservatives, most notably then-U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, by challenging the George W. Bush administration's claim on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that Hussein was pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program. That prompted the Bush administration, led by Bolton, to oppose ElBaradei's bid in 2005 for a third term at the IAEA - and probably secured his legacy as a Nobel laureate.

The sudden political rise of ElBaradei has divided U.S. conservatives, who in the past vilified him for advocating a soft diplomatic approach toward Iraq and Iran.

"This is not the solution to Egypt's problems," Bolton said in an interview.

But Danielle Pletka, a foreign and defense policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, pointed to ElBaradei's commitment to democratic reform. "ElBaradei has many weaknesses, including an ego the size of all outdoors, but he has done nothing to prove he is against democracy, and his job is to work for the Egyptian people, not for us," she said.

Zacharia contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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