Former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei talks to members of the media as he arrives at Cairo's airport in Egypt, from Austria, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011. ElBaradei told reporters that 'the regime has not been listening.' He urged the Egyptian regime to exercise restraint with protesters, saying they have been met with a good deal of violence which could lead to an 'explosive situation.' (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis) (AP)

Mohamed ElBaradei: The man of the movement

Since Egypt's upheaval began, activists and journalists looked to one man to unify the opposition. Is he doing it?

Adam Clark Estes
February 1, 2011 5:20AM (UTC)

Egypt's opposition movement finally has a face. He wears horn-rimmed Gandhi glasses, holds a Nobel Peace Prize, and mistrusts the United States. Meet Mohamed ElBaradei.

Mohamed ElBaradei could be the next president of Egypt, and he certainly has the résumé for it. A son of the Cairo elite -- his father once headed the Egyptian Bar Association -- ElBaradei earned a bachelor's from the University of Cairo and a Ph.D. in international law from New York University. After a 15-year career with Egyptian Diplomatic Service, ElBaradei moved to the United Nations in 1980 and eventually landed in the director general's chair at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by 1997. Over the next 12 years there, ElBaradei would gain international recognition for his commitment to nuclear anti-proliferation policy, his advice about handling Iran, and his championing of peaceful solutions to political problems.


The emerging portrait of the bald-headed ElBaradei as the tacit leader of the resistance -- he really does look like Gandhi -- makes sense. The Nobel laureate's emergence as a vocal opponent to the U.S. invasion of Iraq complements his persistent activism for democracy in Egypt. On Sunday, the Muslim Brotherhood joined forces with the secular uprising behind ElBaradei to create a unified force of opposition against President Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood, the largest and oldest Islamic political group, enjoys unique political clout within Egypt, where the organization was founded in 1928, given its illegal status. However, with the megaphone in ElBaradei's hands, pundits sound hopeful about the alliance as an alternative to Mubarak's regime.

This is where things get complicated. ElBaradei's network of supporters stretches across the globe, but he might be lacking the two key allies: the Egyptian people and the United States.

ElBaradei landed in Egypt Thursday night to a ravenous crowd of journalists and a reverent group of Egyptians. One journalist described the homecoming party as a mere "smattering of  well-wishers," a curious showing for a man who just last year drew well over 1,000 people to the tarmac to welcome his return. As he stood blinking in the camera flashes, ElBaradei called for an end to violence, an end to torture. The following day, authorities working under President Hosni Mubarak shot ElBaradei with a water cannon, and when riot police stormed into the crowd, clubs swinging, protesters created a ring around the 68-year-old leader to protect him from the blows. However, when push comes to shove -- "shove" being shorthand for choosing a leader to replace Mubarak -- Egyptians are frankly reticent to support wholeheartedly a man who's lived abroad most of his life. ElBaradei only came back when things got really bad, like Cairo-burning bad. And that might explain his paltry welcome party.


The United States is another story. President Obama probably isn't too upset about ElBaradei's objections to the Iraq invasion way back when, but America does have a vested interest in Egyptian stability. Or rather, America has a vested interest in its investment in Egypt as a cornerstone of a stable Middle East. Obama has quite conspicuously stopped short of calling for Mubarak's resignation, as the prospect of an unknown faction ruling one of America's key allies in the Middle East must horrify the White House. It's less a problem with ElBaradei as the face of the opposition, it seems, and more a problem with his friends that really make up the opposition.

According to one anonymous source in the administration, ElBaradei is not exactly friendly to American interests.  The source told the New York Times, "He’s shown an independence from us that will squelch any argument that he's doing our bidding." Which is a very roundabout way of calling ElBaradei uncooperative without saying a word resembling "uncooperative."

This doesn't rule ElBaradei out by any means, and administration officials have even mentioned his name as a possible transitional leader. ElBaradei's alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, viewed by some Americans as another group of Islamic extremists, complicates matters. But "democracy" is a pretty powerful buzzword in the conversation. Obama's lack of commitment toward a new leader for Egypt is craftily couched in democratic ideals.


"Let the Egyptian people decide" sounds easy. To be cynical about it, the Egyptian people decided in the last election. The government blocked polling sites. The election lasted a month. The reports of election fraud were overwhelming. And Mubarak won nearly 90 percent of the vote.

It's probably a really good thing that Mohamed ElBaradei is a career diplomat. Because somehow, he has some negotiating to do.

Adam Clark Estes

Adam Clark Estes blogs the news for Salon. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @adamclarkestes

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