Speculation on Egypt's impending presidential election returned to a fevered level this week as Mohamad el Baradei, now-former Director-General of the IAEA, commented on the possibility of running for the position in the 2011 race. The question of who will run has been the subject of increasingly pitched debates over the last year, but the addition of Baradei's name to the standard list of contenders adds an extra layer of complexity to this divination game. Baradei's statement on CNN three days ago was the catalyst for this new round of speculation:
"I've been closely following calls for me to run in the next presidential elections. Though I deeply appreciate people's trust in my abilities, I'd like to make it clear that my final position will be determined upon a number of fundamental issues. Elections must be under the full supervision of the judiciary and in the presence of international observers from the United Nations to ensure transparency."
Hardly an iron-clad statement of purpose.
Still, the addition of Baradei into the mix -- which currently includes Hosni Mubarak, his son, Gamal Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, the head of Egypt's security services, and Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League -- has led some to suggest that he might present new hope for a united opposition front to whomever is the NDP candidate (most likely to be one of the two Mubarakas).
Indeed, many independent and opposition groups hailed Baradei's statement and suggested that they might support him if he tried to run. The Wafd Party has suggested nominating him as their candidate and opposition groups like Kefaya and the 6th of April Movement released endorsements of his potential candidacy.
Of course this is all mostly meaningless, since any Baradei candidacy is likely to be de-railed before it ever gets off the ground, simply due to Egypt's draconian election laws (more details on this here).
But for the sake of argument, let's consider the potential for Baradei to be a truly unifying opposition candidate. I see three reasons that this is unlikely:
First, Baradei has little connection to Egypt. He has spent only six years living in the country since 1964 (a fact pointed out by the independent columnist Omar Taher in the opposition newspaper Al Dostoor). He is already being accused for being out-of-touch with concrete Egyptian issues and Egyptians are little familiar with his background, beliefs, or vision for the country.
Second, he is too close to a Western foreign policy establishment that the Egyptian opposition has come to deeply distrust. Ultimately I think the opposition would fracture over whether or not to support a figure who has spent so much time working with and for states and organizations that are often criticized for exercising neo-imperialism and paternalism (the UN, the United States, and Israel).
Finally, and most importantly, I don't think Baradei has the breadth of appeal to attract the many different camps in Egypt's opposition, including the most important one -- the Islamists. Frankly, no opposition candidate who runs for President without the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood can be taken seriously. The rest of the opposition is too weak and divided to present the kind of grassroots foundation that would make a candidate viable. The organizations that have endorsed Baradei are primarily secular and liberal, while organizations and parties aligned with other ideologies (including Nasserists, socialists, and Islamists), have given, at best, tepid responses. An independent who runs with an MB endorsement (and who can also appeal to some of these other ideological groups) is probably the best shot the opposition has at presenting a real alternative to the NDP's selection.
Who might that be? We can only speculate.