On January 14, Mohamed ElBaradei, Egyptian diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner announced that he would not, as previously declared, contest in the Egyptian presidential polls scheduled for June this year. This comes at a difficult time for the country. The Muslim Brotherhood party has just won a majority in the parliamentary elections. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which has governed the country after the January 2011 revolt that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, is attempting a transition to democracy. Protests are continuing to rock the country over the SCAF’s hold of power.
So who exactly is ElBaradei and what does his withdrawal from the presidential race mean for the country?
ElBaradei is a widely acclaimed international figure. He has a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Cairo and a doctorate in international law from the New York University School of Law.
ElBaradei began his diplomatic career in the Egyptian Diplomatic Service and then moved on to the United Nations. Here, he served three terms as the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This is an intergovernmental agency that serves as the world’s centre for scientific cooperation in the nuclear field. ElBaradei held this post 12 years, from December 1997, to November 2009.
During his tenure, he and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts “to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.”
Role in the Revolution
After the end of his third term with the IAEA, ElBaradei returned to his homeland in February 2010, when President Mubarak was still ruling the country. He helped form an umbrella organisation, the National Association for Change — a network of young activists who later took part in the January 2011 revolt. He also held a series of meetings to try and bridge the gap between all the opposition forces — the seculars and the religious conservatives, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the months leading up to the revolution, the Association presented a petition that listed seven demands.
Two key demands were: allowing independent candidates to run for president and lifting of the emergency laws that have been in place in the country since 1981.
ElBaradei is considered by some to be one of the driving forces behind the movement. He too participated in the 18-day protests that rocked the country, though in a low profile manner. In March last year, after President Mubarak was ousted, he announced his decision to contest in the upcoming presidential polls.
Why Did he Withdraw?
In the year since President Mubarak’s ouster, the SCAF has continued to hold on to power. When this was protested in October, November and December of last year, the SCAF cracked down on protestors violently, injuring and killing many. Several protestors have also been hauled up for trials in military courts (instead of civilian ones) and jailed.
ElBaradei has repeatedly criticised the military’s excesses on Twitter, and in order to protest their continued hold on power, he withdrew his candidacy. In his announcement, ElBaradei said, “The former regime did not fall. My conscience does not permit me to run for the presidency or any other official position unless it is within a real democratic system.”
Another salient point of his protest was the military’s timetable — at present, candidates are supposed to campaign for the post of president even before the drafting of a new constitution which will define the duties, role and powers of the president. ElBaradei has strongly campaigned for the constitution to be written before the elections.
Even as thousands of his supporters have started an online campaign to get him to reverse his decision, ElBaradei said that he would continue his political involvement outside the official framework and continue to agitate for democratic progress.
What does this Mean for the Country?
ElBaradei is a well-known and respected leader of secular and liberal activists, who had hoped that he would lead the country towards democratic reforms after 30 years of dictatorship.
However, many Egyptians were doubtful about him as a candidate. As he has spent many years outside the country, this has led to questions about his authenticity as an Egyptian. He is seen by many as an outsider who lacks charisma and has been criticised for leaving the country at crucial times. Critics also claim that the only reason he did withdraw was because his chances of winning the election were slim, as he did not have a large grassroots support base. The Muslim Brotherhood considered him too liberal — as his ideas for the country include a Western-style democracy.
His withdrawal though comes at a time when many Egyptians fear that the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF will reach some sort of an alliance that will give the military a continued hold over the country’s politics and extensive powers as well.
His supporters however, believe that he can be far more effective by campaigning for change outside of the government. ElBaradei has said that his main focus will continue to be the goals of the revolution: bread, freedom and human dignity.
About 10 days after ElBaradei withdrew his candidacy, he received another offer. The League of Arab States approached him to be their representative to Syria to help arrive at a settlement in the current conflict there. However, ElBaradei refused the post, citing extreme pressure of work.
On January 27, ElBaradei, through his Facebook page called for a new political timetable for his country. He asked the newly elected Parliament to immediately elect an interim president. He also asked them to begin drafting a new constitution.
They “must define the political system and guarantee a civil state, rights and freedoms,” he has stated.