Egypt's warrior for democracy opts out

Following the high Islamist turnout in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director of the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, and a major political player in the Egyptian revolution, withdrew from the upcoming presidential race.

"My conscience does not allow me to run for the presidency or any other official position unless there is real democracy," ElBaradei said in his statement announcing his decision. He added that those who are currently holding power in Egypt, the Security Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), are no better than ousted former President Hosni Mubarak.

One of the most important factors that effected ElBaradei’s pullout was the decision to establish the new constitution after the presidential elections, leaving the president’s role undefined until after the office is filled.

"It is a great loss, but an honorable political stance," says George Ishak, prominent Egyptian opposition figure and member of the National Association for Change (NAC), which ElBaradei founded. 
Ishak anticipates that the military council and the Islamists, who make up around 70 percent of the newly elected parliament, will coordinate to back a candidate. “The two groups might surprise Egyptians by proposing a surprise candidate that will please both the Islamists and the SCAF."

Whether ElBaradei’s decision will limit the chances of secularists or liberals, it will not affect the influence that the Nobel Prize winner has had in helping build youth networks active in the Egyptian public sphere.

ElBaradei’s fight for a democratic Egypt began two years ago, when he formed the NAC. He and his partners wrote up a list of seven desired reforms, which were ignored by the Mubarak regime. This lists of changes included demanding the end of the state of emergency law, and guaranteeing free elections and the right for Egyptian expatriates to vote.

ElBaradei mobilized youth to gather signatures in support of the suggested changes. It was the first wide-reaching democratic reform campaign in the country.

Though the list of suggestions did not pass, ElBaradei’s effect on the youth’s political consciousness was profound. Many ElBaradei campaigners are now occupying seats in Egypt’s parliament. This new generation of energetic, charismatic politicians, mostly in their 30s, is all new to a country that was led by autocratic regimes for the past six decades.

ElBaradei has acted as a liaison between liberals, leftists and Islamists. In a meeting that was held one month before the January 25 revolution a year ago, he was the first to foresee that the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood would gain much political traction in the country’s future. ElBaradei also included the Islamist group in his efforts to push for reform during the last year of Mubarak’s rule.

But many anti-SCAF Egyptians are not pleased with ElBaradei’s decision to drop out of the race. "I disagree with ElBaradei's decision. He has to continue the battle with us, this is not the right moment to quit," says Shady el-Ghazali Harb, a liberal activist and a member of the January 25 Coalition.

"It's a huge loss, because ElBaradei was the best presidential candidate, and he had a good chance,” says Marwa Farouk, a member of the Popular Socialist Coalition Party. Farouk suggests that the undemocratic way in which SCAF has been running the country since the revolution was behind ElBaradei's decision.
The ones who are most pleased that ElBaradei is no longer running are the Islamists. "We're so happy that ElBaradei has quit the presidential race," said Mohamed Radwan, a member of the Nour Salafi Party, "ElBaradei has taken this decision based on the fact that the majority of Egyptians have voted for Islamists in the recent parliamentary elections."

However, many analysts believe that if the Islamists take over both the parliament and the presidency, it might put Islamist groups under the kind of pressure they want to avoid, at least for the time being. “The party with the most seats in the parliament [the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party] has implied that they don’t want to have a president from the Islamic group but would rather coordinate with an inclusively accepted figure,” says Ishak.

Of the three Islamists who have declared their candidacy, none are from the two main Islamic parties, the FJP and the Salafi Nour Party. However, one candidate, Mohamed Abul-Futtouh was a prominent leader in the Muslim Brotherhood but was ousted from the group after his decision to run for the presidency.

No doubt, ElBaradei’s efforts have been an important factor in transforming the new Egypt, however it may turn out to be.