In Egypt, Critical Questions Remain for ElBaradei

originally published in World Politics Review

In Egypt, Critical Questions Remain for ElBaradei

Elizabeth Iskander and Minas Monir | 03 Jun 2010

Since his return to Egypt and dramatic entry into the Egyptian political spotlight, Mohamed ElBaradei has attracted support from various political blocs, as well as from the Egyptian people, who tout the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency as a hero. However, the enthusiasm with which many Egyptians, especially the young and marginalized, have joined his campaign is based largely on frustration and a desire for social and political change, rather than actual support for ElBaradei himself.

Indeed, ElBaradei’s strategy so far has resembled an effort to be all things to all people, in order to satisfy the extremes of the Egyptian political spectrum. His unlikely coalition, gathered under the umbrella of the National Association for Change, includes both leftist parties and the Muslim Brotherhood. He has held these disparate elements together in part by refusing to articulate a policy agenda, thereby preventing any attempt to determine his true political colors.

ElBaradei is due to visit London on June 11 to present his campaign to the Egyptian diaspora. While many inside Egypt may be satisfied by any hint of hope, those abroad will prove to be a harder sell. To win their support and trust, and to present himself as a serious political figure with a defined and sustainable vision, ElBaradei needs to clarify his vision based on the following key questions.

First, what would Egypt under an ElBaradei presidency look like? In particular, the different partners in his coalition have diametrically opposed policies concerning one of today’s crucial issues in Egypt: the definition and implementation of equal citizenship rights. The nature of citizenship has become a fashionable but fundamental topic since March 2007, when constitutional amendments came into force in an attempt to enshrine this principle in Egypt’s legal and political culture.

The sticking point is how to implement equal rights and duties for all citizens, as set out in Article 1 of the constitution, at the same that Islam is the religion of the State and Shariah the principal source of law in accordance with Article 2. Many intellectuals and secular Egyptian figures consider Article 2 as a barrier to a full civil state and equality before the law for all citizens. By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood — according to its manifesto for the June 1 elections to the Egyptian Upper House, the Majlis al-Shura — understands citizenship to mean that Muslims and non-Muslims are equal in their civil rights, but only within the limits of Islamic law.

ElBaradei has promoted himself as a secular candidate devoted to both democratic reform of the Egyptian political system and the separation of religion and the state. However, in light of his relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, ElBaradei will face complications in any discussion of amending Article 2 of the constitution. Conversely, if he is willing to sacrifice the principal of separating religion and the state, can he continue to represent himself as a supporter of a civil state in Egypt?

Second, what would ElBaradei’s position on foreign policy look like? It is unclear how ElBaradei will deal with Iranian ambitions in the Middle East, for instance, especially with regard to Tehran’s proxies and local sympathizers, the Muslim Brotherhood among them. This is critical considering the discovery of a Hezbollah cell in Sinai in April 2009 — and the role played by Muslim Brotherhood lawyers in defending those accused of belonging to it.

Furthermore, there is the issue of how ElBaradei will reconcile the foreign policy visions of the parties in his alliance. The Nasserist party’s manifesto for the Shura elections declared an intention to hold a referendum on the Camp David peace agreement with Israel. Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood manifesto clearly affirms that if it became a majority party, it would push for a review of Egypt’s international agreements and would put the Camp David agreement to a public referendum in an effort to sever ties with the “Zionist enemies.” Will ElBaradei jeopardize Egypt’s international relations in general, and cut all the ties and peace agreements between Egypt and Israel in particular?

Finally, some Egyptian observers have criticized ElBaradei for trying to take a short cut to the top of the political hierarchy by aiming immediately for the presidency. He has entered the political fray targeting the top job, without first building a political party or program to develop and support a sustained and mature political base. By skipping the steps of establishing a party and explaining how he would practically implement his agenda going forward, he has rendered his movement incapable of providing leadership or innovation for Egyptian political life in the long term.

Furthermore, the Egyptian street has in the past proven skeptical of placing its trust in political personalities once they have lost election bids. At present, ElBaradei does not even meet the constitution’s restrictive eligibility requirements to stand in the 2011 presidential elections. However, were he to contest the election and lose, which at this point is very likely, ElBaradei could potentially jeopardize his political career. What then for his association for change?

These questions need clarification, because achieving real change in Egypt requires transparency and a long-term political strategy. Only a clearly articulated agenda will allow people to truly judge whether ElBaradei has a sustainable program for reform — one that will outlast ElBaradei, the symbol, in order to make a long-lasting contribution to change. Further delay in providing such an agenda on ElBaradei’s part will surely lead to a loss of momentum for the Association for Change and point to a lack of substance behind his calls for reform.

Elizabeth Iskander is a Middle East analyst, translator and doctoral candidate at Cambridge University writing on Egyptian media. She has coordinated research projects on the Middle East for several international NGOs and currently heads a research program on Iran.

Minas Monir is a Cairo-based journalist, translator and writer. He works mainly on the politics, culture and religion of the Middle East. The author of several theological books, his main areas of expertise include Egyptian affairs and political theology.

Photo: Mohamed ElBaradei, January 2007 (World Economic Forum photo by Remy Steinegger, licensed under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 Attribution).

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