Democracy leaves Egypt's protest square

Mohamed ElBaradei visits a mosque in his home town of Ibyar as part of his so-far unofficial campaign to be Egyptian president.

Story highlights

  • Former nuclear watchdog chief takes his on-off campaign for Egyptian president to remote home town of Ibyar
  • Mohamed ElBaradei's voice is big on Twitter but analysts point out 40 percent of the population is illiterate
  • They question his ability to capture the hearts and minds of ordinary Egyptians
  • ElBaradei has been accused of being non-religious and an agent of the west
The small, dusty Nile Delta village of Ibyar sits only 100 kilometers from the sprawling metropolis of Cairo, but is "part of a different world," kiosk owner Heba Fahmy explains, sorting through her stock of potato chips and chewing gum.
Ibyar has one road going through it and little, if anything, to attract visitors. But for one day last week it became part of Egypt's rapidly evolving and often chaotic political transformation.
Hundreds of people packed the town's narrow, unpaved streets last Friday to welcome home former diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, proclaiming him as Egypt's "next president" and "the only solution."
"We're usually dead," Fahmy says. "But today we're alive."
ElBaradei's media office denied the former head of the world's nuclear watchdog would officially announce his candidacy, saying it was only a family visit, but with the subsequent launch of an "official Baradei Presidential Campaign 2011" Twitter handle, many perceived the visit as the kick-off to his campaign.
His message was a simple one. "Let our motto in the coming period be "We are all one hand in achieving justice, equality, freedom and social justice," which are the principles of our Islamic religion," ElBaradei said following prayers at his hometown mosque.
But neither ElBaradei nor many other of the nascent Egyptian parties have come up with much in the way of policy.
In the dizzying and uncertain days of Egypt's post-Mubarak transition, many activists and candidates are only just beginning to move from the language of protest in Tahrir Square to the business of building parties and engaging voters.
Seven months after the protests in Cairo brought down Mubarak, the de-factor interim government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has come under mounting pressure to set official election dates.
Tuesday it announced the first phase of parliamentary elections would begin November 28th. The election commission has not yet proposed a date for presidential elections, and political groups -- working in the dark -- are assuming the eventual date could be anywhere from six months to two years away.
For his part, ElBaradei came to the rough and tumble of Egyptian politics late in life after a distinguished career as an international diplomat. Now 69 he served as the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency for 12 years - and before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he challenged President George W. Bush's claims that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program.
In 2005, ElBaradei and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to curb nuclear proliferation.
The tall technocrat is in many ways an unlikely Presidential candidate in Egypt, more cerebral than cut-and-thrust. He certainly had a baptism of fire. Last year, after returning to Egypt, he called for a nationwide campaign of political reform and mobilized a grassroots organization that gathered more than 1 million signatures to demand changes to a political system dominated by one man for nearly thirty years. And after the protests began, he visited Tahrir Square to a hero's welcome.
That's a matter of pride in Ibyar. "He was the first and only person to come out against Mubarak. That's enough for us. Where was everyone else?" said Ahmed Shafiq while walking to the mosque where ElBaradei attended Friday prayers alongside residents.
But analysts say that ElBaradei faces an uphill struggle persuading Egyptians he can communicate on the hustings and mobilize support.
He is often regarded as disconnected, his low-key humble demeanor the opposite of the charismatic populist leaders who have historically captivated the Egyptian public.
Oft-chided as the "Twitter president," ElBaradei has been addressing the public mainly through his social media accounts, where almost a half a million people follow him. But in a country where 40 percent of the population are below the poverty line and illiterate, many question his ability to capture the hearts and minds of ordinary Egyptians.
Even his homecoming was largely recorded through his Twitter account, which told the world he sat with residents to discuss the future of Egypt.
"I'm working with a number of experts to put a practical program in all fields and simplifying it, so it can reach the man on the street," he tweeted.
So far it's been a challenge. "We want him to come out and talk to us," said Ibyar resident Mohammed Shoukrey, waiting outside while ElBaradei visited with family on his eponymous childhood street. "We still don't know his program."
"He is always having these almost-launch campaigns, dress rehearsals, as if he's not certain he really wants to run or how far he wants to go," said Egyptian writer and media executive Bassem Sabry. "So he keeps one foot inside, one foot outside the door. But he can't keep playing the middle. He's frustrating his supporters."
"I don't think his chances of winning are high," says veteran Egyptian editor and publisher Hisham Kassem. "His discourse of idealism and stance on civil liberties won't resonate when Egyptians are looking for stability and security. It's not that he's late, but if he wants to run, he needs to start touring the country, talking to farmers, villagers now."
He has started to -- meeting a group of farmers Monday. ElBaradei said he was working on a strategy for the country's farm sector for publication within the next couple of months.
While other presidential hopefuls, namely the most formidable contender Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general, have been holding weekly rallies across Egypt, ElBaradei has largely stayed off the radar.
"His demeanor doesn't fit with the times," says Michael Hanna, Egyptian-American political analyst from the New York-based Century Foundation. "In this sort of climate when street action is needed, his staying above the fray won't cut it and won't have purchase in places like rural Egypt."
And sometimes mud sticks. The former regime portrayed him as a non-religious elitist and agent of the west.
Last year, photographs were released on Facebook in a group called "Secrets of the Baradei Family" of ElBaradei's daughter in a swimsuit and at her wedding where alcohol was served. No proof was ever produced, and ElBaradei accused the Mubarak regime of hacking her Facebook account, saying it was an attempt to portray him and his family as "non-believers" -- a weighty accusation in an increasingly conservative Muslim country.
More recently, ElBaradei's supporters have faced difficulties in campaigning. Photographs of ElBaradei were torn down in some Egyptian towns, one of the major Egyptian papers, Al Masry Al Youm, reported.
"It's hard to work on the ground," says campaign volunteer Ryad Shita in the Nile Delta city of Kafr Al Zayat. "We have to deal with a lot of people in the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis in the area who think ElBaradei is not a religious man."
While ElBaradei visited with his family, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party hung shiny pink and gold tinsel across a freshly painted office and unpacked floor-to-ceiling banners to mark the opening of their headquarters just 3 kilometers away.
"We aren't with or against ElBaradei, because he hasn't even come out with his political program yet. Who knows, maybe it will fit with ours," shrugs Hamza Sabry, secretary-general of the Nile Delta branch. "But we are confident that we'll win the Nile Delta in a landslide."
Even after the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak, ElBaradei still suffers from character attacks and ties to the West.
"It's not appropriate for someone who has spent all his life outside the country to rule Egypt," said Nile Delta resident Mostafa Yehia. "He does not feel the heartbeat of the Egyptian street. That's it."
He and a group of five men sat at a cafe on the Nile river. ElBaradei was "smart but an outsider," they agreed, and Amr Moussa a "strong son of the country."
But one thing they still marvel at.
"Look, I still can't believe we're even talking about having more than one presidential candidate," beamed 52-year-old engineer Mohammed Sharqawy. "We now have options after never knowing any other color for most of our lives. This is a new game for us, a new country. We have a lot to think about."