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Mohamed ElBaradei: I am not the new Pharaoh

From Ben Wedeman, CNN
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Egypt's reluctant leader
  • Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei may run for presidency of Egypt next year
  • The former UN official says President Mubarak's regime lacks legitimacy
  • Many Egyptians see him as the person to lead the country into a new area of democracy
  • A distinguished international civil servant, ElBaradei head IAEA for three consecutive terms

Editor's note: Every week CNN's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week we profile Nobel Peace Prize-winner Mohamed ElBaradei who has emerged as a possible contender for Egypt's presidential elections.

Watch the show on Saturdays at 1130 and 1830 GMT and Sundays at 1700 GMT.

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- The arrival of Mohamed ElBaradei on Egypt's political scene has electrified a country where autocracy is as old as the pyramids.

Nobel Peace Prize winner ElBaradei, one of Egypt's most prominent figures on the world stage, has emerged as a possible contender for the presidential elections scheduled for the autumn of 2011.

Many Egyptians look to the distinguished former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as the man who will shift the Arab world's biggest nation into a new era of democracy, after nearly three decades of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule.

"I didn't tell them I am coming to lead," he told CNN. "I'm coming to lend a hand, well, it turned out that they want me to lead. I told them I am ready to lead and I'm not going to let them down, provided that when I lead I have the people behind me."

Video: ElBaradei on the Iraq war
Video: ElBaradet's targets new democracy

ElBaradei has yet to form a political party but hundreds of hundreds Egyptians have set up Facebook groups supporting his candidacy, joining their voices to his call for democratic change.

He says he's going to run as long as he could be assured that there will be free and fair elections.

"I'm not ready to give the regime the only thing they lack, which is legitimacy," ElBaradei says.

"They would love that I would run and that I would get 30 or 40 percent and shake my hand and say, 'well, hard luck, next time.' That's not what I am going to do. I would only do it when there's absolutely a level playing field and if people want me to do it, of course I will do it."

Egypt's aging and ailing leader, Hosni Mubarak has been in power since 1981, succeeding Anwar Sadat following his assassination by Islamic militants. In 2005, he opened up the presidential election to multiple candidates for the first time but under him Egypt remains, in essence, a one-party state.

Now, a series of health issues -- including gall bladder surgery in Germany earlier in the year -- have made it unclear if 82-year-old Mubarak will run for presidency next year.

I'm not ready to give the regime the only thing they lack, which is legitimacy.
--Mohamed Elbaradei

Cairo-born ElBaradei began working in Egypt's diplomatic service in the early 1960s. In 1980 he joined U.N. and in 1997 he became head of the IAEA, taking on some of the world's most uncompromising regimes -- including Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- over their nuclear programs.

The list of his high-profile adversaries also includes former U.S. President George W. Bush. As storm clouds gathered over Iraq in 2002, ElBaradei was thrust into the center of controversy when he questioned the Bush administration's insistence that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction.

"We knew that Iraq at that time did not have nuclear weapons, we had to see whether they reconstituted their program; we had no shred of evidence that they did and I made that quite clear.

"Some people in the Bush administration did not like that and as we now know both in London and in the U.S. they had a hidden agenda, which is regime change," he said.

People ... want to look at me as a new pharaoh but that's not what I'm about.
--Mohamed ElBaradei

ElBaradei and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2005, in recognition of their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes.

"We got it because of our insistence that the so-called non-proliferation system, the arms control system, is not the right one and we need to get rid of nuclear weapons."

After three terms as the IAEA's director general, ElBaradei stepped down at the end of 2009. He was hoping to settle into a quiet retirement, but many Egyptians seem to have a different idea about what's next for him.

Yet, it's people's mounting expectations that could be as big an impediment for Elbaradei as the attempt to overhaul a political system that's been in place for 30 years.

"The level of frustration, fear and desperation has created this illusion that one person can deliver," Elbaradei says. "And this is really the major problem I am facing here, to get them to understand that you have to organize in grassroots fashion.

"You have to learn what happened in Latin America and Eastern Europe; take charge of your own life, that is really the basic message I am sending to people."

When asked if Egypt needs a leader who is willing to be tough, ElBaradei is adamant: "That is precisely what I want to change," he says.

"To change a system based on a pharaoh to a system based on institutions," he continued. "People are not comfortable with that language, they want to look at me as a new pharaoh but that's not what I'm about."

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report

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