Egyptians plan to give the former U.N. nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei a hero's welcome when he returns home for a visit Friday, expressing high hopes he might challenge the longtime president for power and usher in an era of democratic reform in the country.
A local opposition newspaper printed flight details for the arrival of the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency under the headline "Baradei Returns" to rally people to meet him at the airport. Columnists banged out lists of his achievements.
"With the return of Mohamed ElBaradei, the number of freedom fighters in Egypt will increase," George Ishaq, co-founder of Kifaya, Egypt's main pro-democracy movement, wrote in the opposition paper, Dustor.
Egypt has been ruled for nearly 30 years by Hosni Mubarak, who appears to be trying to set up a political dynasty by grooming his son to succeed him.
Respected worldwide and untouched by the corruption tainting much of Egypt's current regime, ElBaradei could be the most credible opposition leader to emerge as this U.S.-allied country prepares for 2011 presidential elections.
The former Egyptian diplomat left his Vienna-based post as director general International Atomic Energy Agency late last year, leaving a 12-year legacy as the public face of world diplomacy on keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of rogue states.
His return Friday will be his first trip back to Egypt since leaving the IAEA and supporters hope to use the publicity to boost speculation about his potential candidacy.
Airport security officials said they have been ordered to greet him as a dignitary but warned against any disturbances, saying they were expecting large numbers to show up to receive him.
"ElBaradei has not been dirtied by the mistakes of this regime or the feebleness of the opposition movement," said Abdelrahman Yusuf, co-founder of the Popular Movement to Elect ElBaradei.
Yusuf, who plans to take a group of supporters to the airport, said it would not be easy for the Mubarak regime to mistreat ElBaradei as it has other opposition groups given his international reputation.
"It is a message to the population of Egypt that we can make change, a message to Baradei that we want you as our leader, and a message to the world that there is hope for political change in Egypt," Yusuf said.
ElBaradei himself has been guarded about the possibility. In an open letter responding to an effort by young Egyptians urging him to run for president, he said he would only join the race if guaranteed that elections would be free, fully supervised by the judiciary and monitored by the international community.
He also wants the constitution amended to remove restrictions on who is eligible to run.
It would be an uphill battle as opposition candidates in Egypt face a regime backed by emergency laws in force for nearly three decades -- a regime that frequently jails journalists, pro-reform activists and political opponents.
In response to ElBaradei's open letter, the government-controlled press branded him an American stooge and accused him of knowing little about Egypt because of his long years abroad.
As IAEA chief, ElBaradei infuriated Washington by challenging claims Saddam Hussein had a secret nuclear program ahead of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and grappling with Iranian and Korean nuclear programs.
The Bush administration tried to have him removed from office. But the U.S. and its Western allies publicly lined up to praise him in the last months of his term.
"Holding such a sensitive position has proved he can defend his values and principles, and doesn't bow down to pressures," columnist Nabil al-Arabi wrote in the independent newspaper, al-Shourouk.