Can Mohamed ElBaradei Lead Change in Egypt?


This past Thursday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak gave his first public address since his months-long recovery from gall bladder surgery, during which he celebrated his 82nd birthday and his government battled persistent rumors of his death. But the event was most notable because it sounded like Mubarak, who after 30 years in office faces an election next year expected to be as fraud-ridden as the last in 2005, was making a real campaign speech. The president warned the audience of the "chaos" that would come from a change in leadership and accused his opponents of lacking real solutions for Egypt's faltering economy. But why would Mubarak, who has glided through elections on a 25-year-old "Emergency Law" that allows his government such police powers as the ability to jail opposition leaders, feel compelled to make an appeal for public support? After all, the law was extended on Tuesday, presumably in advance of October's parliamentary and 2011's presidential elections. The answer may be Mubarak's undeclared but increasingly popular opponent: former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who leads an informal opposition coalition that has come to encompass key segments of Egyptian society. Few observers believe ElBaradei could ever really unseat Mubarak--the latter's military-aided grip on power is just too tight. But as ElBaradei shines an international spotlight on Mubarak's abuses of power and whips an unhappy electorate into fierce opposition, Mubarak has been forced to acknowledge their grievances. ElBaradei will probably not become president in 2011, but he may well succeed in pressuring Mubarak to bring real change to Egypt.

ElBaradei has been coy about the election, stating his desire to "fight for change" as he denies officially running. Egypt's Emergency Law would likely bar ElBaradei from formally running, as could the constitution's convoluted candidacy requirements. But he has become so popular that, at this point, neither he nor Mubarak can ignore the broad, ElBaradei-led party calling itself National Association for Change.

ElBaradei's group is little more than an "anything-but-Mubarak" coalition, drawing support that ranges from communists and intellectual elites to the officially banned but politically powerful Islamic political party the Muslim Brotherhood. The whisper campaign for ElBaradei began among Egypt's discontented left: students, intellectuals, and the elite. The coalition became too big for Mubarak to ignore once ElBaradei began to champion the growing discontent with the president's key base of support: Egypt's vast working class.

Mubarak has kept the poor and working-class satisfied with extensive welfare programs, labor rights concessions, and development programs. While Mubarak has maintained control in part with the violence and information control typical of an autocratic government, much of his authority rests on working-class Egyptians' contentment with the status quo. But the faltering economy has been steadily weakening the regime's buying power, and the poor and working-class are getting angry.

Underpaid workers have occupied the streets and sidewalks of downtown Cairo almost continually since February, and a nationwide agitation for better pay and rights has been ramping up since 2004. Nurses and textile workers swap protest shifts with tax collectors and taxi drivers, and some groups have been sleeping on the streets to protest around the clock. They wave loaves of bread, which they say can barely afford with their earnings: Egypt's minimum wage hasn't changed from $6 since 1984. Last week, hundreds of workers and activists gathered in front of a government building. The chanting crowd appeared to have the police outnumbered, and scattered instances of violence were reported.

Mubarak has legitimate reasons to cling to office. Thirty years of severe top-down control have stifled the country's radical Islamist movements, which in 1981 assassinated Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. The authoritarian government has brought Egypt's many groups, from Islamic conservatives to secular capitalists, together under a single national identity. A president with such unsustainably disparate support and vague policies as ElBaradei's could seriously destabilize Egypt, an outcome that would have major repercussions throughout the region and for Mubarak's most powerful international backer, the U.S.

Should Mubarak's health lead him to step down, he is expected to hand-pick a successor. The most likely has long appeared to be his son Gamal Mubarak, who promises to continue the economic reform programs, which draw heavily from Ronald Reagan's trickle-down economics, he began in the 1990's. But his image as a profiteer who thrives on nepotism and is out of touch with the people makes him unpopular in Egypt, raising the likelihood that his father will remain in office until Gamal is popular enough to lead.

While ElBaradei's patchwork coalition would probably be too ideologically disparate to govern effectively, his informal campaign on their behalf has allowed them to come together in pushing for reform. Mubarak, who has been opposed by the intellectual left and religious right for years, probably does not fear being voted out of office. But with ElBaradei's coalition now championing the economic anxiety of the working class, Mubarak appears to have acknowledged that, if he wishes to govern effectively, he will need to do more for the people of Egypt than repeat his ballot-stuffing campaign of 2005.

Image: Mohamed ElBaradei speaks at a 2005 nuclear non-proliferation conference in Washington, D.C. Joe Raedle/Getty Images