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

Mohamed ElBaradei joined protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square last weekend after returning to Egypt from his home in Vienna.
Mohamed ElBaradei joined protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square last weekend after returning to Egypt from his home in Vienna. (Peter Macdiarmid)

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By Colum Lynch and Janine Zacharia
Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mohamed ElBaradei, a 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 Cairo's 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 not withdrawing 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 its 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 beginning 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.


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