Africa, Politics

Mohamed ElBaradei continues his dance through history

By Simon Allison 16 January 2012

Mohamed ElBaradei has quit the Egyptian presidential race, dismissing the current political set-up as little more than an extension of the ancien regime. SIMON ALLISON takes this chance to look at the Nobel Laureate’s dodgy dancing, his John the Baptist role in Egypt’s revolution and why Youssou N’Dour is copying his moves.

Youssou N’Dour can get anyone to move their body. It was late 2010 and I was at the evening reception of a glitzy pan-African forum, with N’Dour on stage and my two left feet doing their thing on the crowded dance floor. I looked over to my right and saw that I was not the only unlikely dancer seduced by the rhythms of Africa’s famous musician. Mohamed ElBaradei’s thick glasses and his even thicker moustache indicate a serious lack of cool and his dancing that night, while spirited, did nothing to dispel this impression. Nonetheless, he stole the show; here was a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, a former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the man who told America that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, busting his moves on the dance floor like he didn’t have a care in the world.

Even more remarkable was the timing, for ElBaradei had been busy since his term at the IAEA expired earlier that year. Instead of starting up some self-aggrandising foundation or NGO, as is the usual path of such high-profile international figures (think Kofi Annan or Tony Blair), or settling into a comfortable retirement, ElBaradei left the international arena to fight a far more dangerous battle – and this time, it was personal.

For ElBaradei went home, to Egypt, where he began a nuanced but explosive campaign against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Using all the tricks in his diplomatic handbook, he made sure he never crossed the line into direct opposition or incitement, doing just enough to frustrate Mubarak and let others draw their own conclusions. A typical example was in a television interview where ElBaradei was asked if he would consider running for president of Egypt. He pondered the question, before answering that he would love to, but can’t even consider it until there is substantive reform of the electoral process. This, of course, triggers acres of speculation about what an ElBaradei presidency might look like in contrast to Mubarak’s flawed rule, and spotlights the flawed nature of the political system, all without directly criticising the government. The criticism is implied, of course, but given its subtlety and the protection afforded to ElBaradei by his international profile, there’s nothing Mubarak can do.

Now, nearly a year after the revolution, none of this sounds particularly significant. ElBaradei’s veiled insults seem to pale by comparison with the marches on Tahrir Square and the pitched street battles. But his contribution should not be underestimated. In some ways, ElBaradei was like John the Baptist, preparing the way for the saviour to follow (for John the Baptist, it was Jesus; for ElBaradei, the revolution). His very public defiance of Mubarak was a huge blow to the regime’s sheen of invincibility, and Mubarak’s inability to control ElBaradei undermined the fear which the regime used to maintain its rule.

All this was going on as ElBaradei was dancing away. And while he was trying to copy what Youssou N’Dour was doing on stage, N’Dour was paying close attention to ElBaradei’s political moves. N’Dour has just announced his candidacy in Senegal’s presidential elections in late March, and his rationale is identical to ElBaradei’s. N’Dour knows he can’t win, but he’s also aware that, by virtue of his international superstardom he’s in a privileged position to highlight the flaws in President Abdoulaye Wade’s presidency, both locally and internationally, and there’s nothing Wade can do about it without risking an international outcry. Like ElBaradei, N’Dour wants to put a few cracks in the regime’s seemingly impenetrable edifice. The rest is up to the people themselves.

For ElBaradei, the story has moved along and left him behind. The people seized their opportunity, Mubarak was forced out; during this phase ElBaradei was noticeably quiet, attracting lots of criticism in Tahrir Square for staying at home rather than joining the demonstrations in person. He then announced his intention to run for president, and formed a political party, but his apparently lacklustre approach to political organisation and campaigning meant it was never a serious contender.

On Saturday, he withdrew his candidacy for president and the old ElBaradei was back in action in a scathing statement attacking the interim military government – or perhaps it was his plan all along to use the cessation of his ineffectual campaign to send the loudest message possible. The country is being governed, he said, “as if there was no revolution and no regime fell”. And in these conditions, he announced that he could no longer operate within the official dispensation. Ominously for Egypt’s military government, he affirmed this did not signal the end of his political involvement. “This decision does not mean I am quitting the scene, but I will continue serving this country more effectively from outside the official positions, free of all restrictions.”

It was from just such a position – unofficial, unrecognised and unrestrained – that ElBaradei was able to hasten the fall of Mubarak. Can he do it again? DM



Read more:

  • Egypt: one year on, the young heroes of Tahrir Square feel a chill wind in The Guardian;
  • Egypt’s democracy is a sham, says ElBaradei as he pulls out of election in The Independent.

Photo: Reuters.

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