ElBaradei on reform campaign
By Jailan Zayan
Cairo - Egypt's most high-profile dissident, former UN nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei, has taken his reformist campaign to the street with a whirlwind of encounters with Muslim worshippers, Christian activists and film stars.
The 67-year-old former diplomat attended Friday prayers at Cairo's historic Al-Hussein mosque after going for a walkabout in a nearby working-class neighbourhood as eager passers-by scrambled to shake his hand.
Two days later, the ex-UN atomic watchdog chief held talks with a group of Coptic Christian activists before meeting with a dozen celebrities at his home. Pictures of the events ran on the front pages of all independent newspapers.
"We are building a consensus for change," said George Ishak, a spokesperson for the National Association for Change formed by ElBaradei and around 30 opposition figures to seek constitutional amendments and free elections.
"We will talk to whoever it takes, lawyers, doctors, students, farmers, old, young, anyone."
The former nuclear watchdog chief's critics have accused him of being out of touch after decades spent outside his native Egypt, while others tout him as a man who could awaken the country from a political slumber.
Last month, ElBaradei, who has said he would be willing to run for president in 2011, returned from Vienna, where he headed the International Atomic Energy Agency until the end of 2009, to a rapturous welcome from supporters.
He spent several days meeting activists at his home, before leaving Egypt again. Some had feared the ElBaradei effect would be fleeting, but the street campaign has carried on.
"What he is doing is very intelligent. He is trying to lobby and put political pressure on the regime through public support," said Amr Choubaki, a political analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
He said ElBaradei's strength lies in having avoided overtly political slogans or radical statements - something which would alienate those not politically active.
"In Egypt, we have been used to political activity meaning 100 people standing on a pavement chanting insults at the president," Choubaki said.
Creating a solid base
ElBaradei's Facebook group has reached a count of around 200 000 members.
"Now the challenge is to get 200 000 people on the ground and that is what he is doing. He is creating a solid base. This is very important" said Ahmed Zahran, a political activist.
But ElBaradei faces very real obstacles if he wants to run for president next year, including stiff curbs on presidential candidacies from outside President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP).
Mubarak, in power since 1981, has not said if he plans to run for a fifth six-year term in the next presidential election.
The 81-year-old leader has just returned from Germany where he underwent surgery to have his gall bladder and a growth on the small intestine removed, prompting frenzied speculation as to what shape the post-Mubarak era will take.
"If (ElBaradei) decides to run according to the constitution, he is more than welcome. The only thing he has to do is to join a political party," Ali El-Dean Hillal, NDP stalwart and a former youth minister, said.
Lack of neutrality
ElBaradei has vehemently rejected the option, citing the lack of neutrality of the national committee that oversees political parties. It is currently headed by NDP secretary general Safwat al-Sherif.
"It is entirely up to Mr ElBaradei to decide the modality of his participation in Egyptian political life," Hillal said.
"Until now he didn't say if he will run, he did not issue a platform," he said, conceding however that an ElBaradei candidacy would "definitely make the presidential competition more lively and more competitive".
As an independent candidate, ElBaradei would need the backing of at least 250 elected officials from parliament's upper and lower houses and from municipal councils - all bodies dominated by Mubarak's NDP.
"He is certainly facing practical challenges, but he is emerging from all this as a moral force," Choubaki said.
Zahran agrees: "He has laid the groundwork for change. The question is will people capitalise on that investment?"