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Ex-U.N. Nuclear Chief Seeks Political Reform In Egypt
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Ex-U.N. Nuclear Chief Seeks Political Reform In Egypt

Middle East

Ex-U.N. Nuclear Chief Seeks Political Reform In Egypt

Ex-U.N. Nuclear Chief Seeks Political Reform In Egypt
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Mohamed ElBaradei i

Supporters surround former U.N. nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei as he arrives in Cairo last week. Mohammed Ahmed/AP hide caption

toggle caption Mohammed Ahmed/AP
Mohamed ElBaradei

Supporters surround former U.N. nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei as he arrives in Cairo last week.

Mohammed Ahmed/AP

Mohamed ElBaradei, the U.N.'s former nuclear chief, is the hot new name in Egyptian political circles. The ex-head of the International Atomic Energy Agency returned home last week and formed a new movement Tuesday with opposition leaders to press for political reform in Egypt.

His supporters want ElBaradei to run for president next year, but he says reform must come first.

ElBaradei, 67, is not the model of a modern political candidate. But as one of the few independent Egyptians with the stature and name recognition to challenge President Hosni Mubarak, ElBaradei's return home from Vienna sent a jolt of life through what has been a desolate opposition landscape in recent years.

In his first Egyptian television interview, ElBaradei was asked if he sees himself as Egypt's savior, to which he replied no — that he is simply trying to stir Egyptians from their political slumber.

"The first thing I say every day is that there is no such thing as a savior," ElBaradei said. "If we are to move toward democracy, we must move away from individuals, a Pharaonic system that's been in place for 7,000 years, and toward institutions."

He added: "If you want this country to change, each one of you has to participate and say what you want."

ElBaradei probably can't run for president as things stand, because of constitutional amendments pushed through by the ruling party in the wake of the 2005 elections, when supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood won nearly 20 percent of the seats in parliament; among other things, he would need the endorsement of a large number of ruling party lawmakers.

ElBaradei said the top priority for Egyptians should be to roll back those restrictions, and to reinstate the requirement for judicial observers at all polling stations, to provide some chance of transparency.

"If someone like me cannot run for the presidency, we're in a major crisis," he said. "The fact is, we have a constitution that prevents 99 percent of Egyptians from even running — never mind winning. They can't even run for the presidency."

ElBaradei also said that political reform is more important than his own candidacy, and even offered not to run himself, in exchange for winning electoral reform.

"I want the constitution fixed, and I can promise them not to run if that happens, because this isn't about me," he said.

ElBaradei's first move has been to band together with other opposition figures to form the National Association for Change, an advocacy group that will press for electoral reforms. Ruling party officials have reportedly urged ElBaradei to give up his grass-roots effort, accept a ministerial position and try to effect change from the inside.

Political analysts in Egypt have watched ElBaradei's return with as much interest as the opposition, but without much optimism. They note that the government-controlled press is already bashing ElBaradei as an out-of-touch outsider who hasn't lived in Egypt in years.

Independent analyst Mustafa Kamel Sayed says there is no question ElBaradei has energized the opposition, and a public push for election reform is a good idea. But at this point, Sayed says he thinks the chances of real reform are slim, and ElBaradei's chances of becoming president are even slimmer.

"We have also to understand that the country does not have a tradition of free elections, particularly under President Hosni Mubarak," Sayed said. "So it is a wild dream to think that there would be a majority for an opposition candidate, and that the results of the elections would reflect this real majority."

On the side of the ruling party, there is also uncertainty. Will Mubarak run for yet another term? If not, will his son Gamal stand in his stead? These are questions that fascinate officials, analysts and journalists, but so far, not very many ordinary Egyptians, who are too busy trying to make ends meet.

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