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Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, is the hot new name in Egyptian political circles. This week, he formed a new movement with opposition leaders to press for political reform. His supporters want ElBaradei to run for president next year. But he says reform must come first.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.
PETER KENYON: A balding man of middle age with a graying moustache and glasses, Mohamed ElBaradei is not the very 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 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, he was simply trying to stir Egyptians from their political slumber.
Dr. MOHAMED ELBARADEI (Former Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency): (Through Translator) The first thing I say every day is that there is no such thing as a savior. 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. If you want this country to change, each one of you has to participate and say what you want.
KENYON: ElBaradei probably can't run as things stand, thanks to 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 requirements for judicial observers at all polling stations to provide some chance of transparency.
Dr. ELBARADEI: (Through translator) If someone like me cannot run for the presidency, we're in a major crisis. 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.
KENYON: He added that political reform is more important than his own candidacy, and even offered not to run himself in exchange for winning electoral reform.
Dr. ELBARADEI: (Through translator) I want the constitution fixed, and I can promise them not to run if that happens, because this isn't about me.
KENYON: 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 grassroots effort, accept a ministerial position and try to effect change from the inside. Political analysts here 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 Kamal Sayed says there's no question ElBaradei's appearance has energized the opposition, and a public push for election reform is a good idea. But at this point, he thinks the chances of real reform are slim, and ElBaradei's chances of becoming president are even slimmer.
Mr. MUSTAFA KAMAL SAYED: We have also to understand that the country does not have a tradition of free elections, particularly under President Hosni Mubarak. So it is a wild dream to think that there would be a majority for opposition candidate, and that the results of the elections would reflect this real majority.
KENYON: On the side of the ruling party, there is also uncertainty. Will President Hosni Mubarak run for yet another term? If not, will his son, Gamal, stand in instead? 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.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.
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