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Egypt’s Baradei: Leader for Change or More of the Same?

While Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei holds support from many seeking social reforms, others contend he won’t succeed in government.

[Cairo, Egypt] As protesters rally to condemn police violence and the gruesome murder of Egyptian Khaled Said, the crowd amasses around a man attempting to traverse the police guarded streets in Alexandria. That man is Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief, who has seemingly prompted Egyptian opposition to take action.


Such street demonstrations, ElBaradei’s supporters say, are a testament to his progress.


But many Egyptian activists and bloggers are not convinced. They argue ElBaradei doesn’t know what he is doing and has fallen prey to the ills that have afflicted Egyptian civil society for much of the past decade.


“We want change, he wants change, but the same old tactics are not working and this is a sign that he can’t be the person to galvanize and change the country as many of us had believed,” said Tareq Osman, a 29-year-old graduate of American University in Cairo, an activist and accountant.


He believes Egypt is witnessing the same false optimism that has come and gone in recent years. Osman argues that change is a long process.


“[Egyptians] are not willing to endeavor. We go to the streets too much in such small numbers that we have been unable to educate the population on how real change can happen,” said Osman.


ElBaradei, for his credit, has over 100,000 Facebook fans and has the appreciation of major segments of Egyptian society. This includes long-time activists and former members of ‘Kifaya’ – the “Enough” opposition movement that initially sparked protests in 2005 that have continued till today. But like Osman, many Egyptians see little difference between Kifaya, former presidential candidate Ayman Nour and the current ‘ElBaradei trend’.


Mohamed Abdel-Khalek, a 61-year-old former political science professor, said Egypt is not witnessing anything new.


“We are seeing more of the same with ElBaradei, unfortunately,” he began. “When Khaled was murdered by police in Alexandria in dramatic fashion, ElBaradei and the activists spoke out and took to the streets, but this immediate action does not have the staying power because it is focused on singular events or issues that the majority of the population have little knowledge of to care about.”


Abdel-Khalek pointed to ElBaradei’s National Front for Change, a conglomeration of opposition movements and leaders underneath one umbrella. The coalition is calling to amend the constitution and remove the Emergency Law (a Draconian law that allows the government to arrest and detain citizens without charge and curtails freedom of assembly).


The former IAEA chief has garnered much support online, on Twitter, blogs and Facebook, but those same outlets are beginning to show his support is waning. In June, a number of online activists launched a campaign against ElBaradei, arguing that the new face of Egypt’s opposition is running on empty.


“We want change, but ElBaradei is not giving us anything new to work with. He is saying the same things every other leader and political organization has said in recent years. Where is the change from within first before they start demanding other change?” asked Hoda Yussif, a political science student at Cairo University.


She believes that real change must come from grassroots efforts to educate the Egyptian population.


“ElBaradei hasn’t learned this,” she contended.


One foreign editor who recently interviewed ElBaradei said the Nobel laureate is “unsure” of how to tackle pro-democracy activism in the country.


“It is tough to say what he is planning because he, himself, doesn’t appear to know,” said the editor.


With parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall, ElBaradei has become a galvanizing figure for some, but for others, he is old hat.


In the streets of Alexandria, ElBaradei joined activists, in the name of freedom and change, when they demonstrated against the government’s response to the murder of Khaled Said.


“What did he do other than show his face?” asked Osman. “We need someone who will have concrete ideas of how we as an opposition community can come to terms with the failure to make any in roads in the past five years toward real and lasting change.”


ElBaradei’s detractors contend that he has become an almost untouchable figure in the current Egyptian political landscape, but that in order to achieve change he must modify the way the reform movement deals with the government and fellow activists.


According to Yussif, the country is “stale.”


While the opposition community is able to create or accept larger-than-life figures, “we continue to succumb to what the government wants. They want us to protest in small numbers and create anger among the poorer segments of society because it means no threat to their power,” she explained.


Yussif added that too many Egyptians are struggling to make ends meet.


If they are worrying about daily necessities like putting food on the table, “how can they join a movement that appears to not care for them personally?” she asked.


As ElBaradei’s popularity wanes, Egyptians appear to want something new and different in a leader. Will ElBaradei be this person or is he simply a figurehead for the stagnant ways of the opposition? This is the major question that seems to be permeating the Egyptian blogosphere, Twitter and activist communities.


While many love ElBaradei, he is quickly losing ground with others in a country struggling to find the change desired by so many.