The Day They Hi-Jacked the Egyptian Uprising: Update

Posted on January 31, 2011


One of the more interesting things about the revolts in both Tunisia and Egypt, has been their decentralized popular character.While both countries had and have institutionalized opposition groups of varying efficacy, they were not involved in either organizing or getting people out into the street. Though in Egypt’s case there was a social network drive to get people out into the street after protest permits were denied on “Police Day” on Tuesday, January 25, much of the energy of the demonstration, if not the bodies, have come from word of mouth, and the self-generating momentum.

In Egypt’s case, this seems all about to change. Many have already noted that the sudden appearance of Mohammed Elbaradei in front of the crowds, a stranger to Egyptian politics until early 2010,  has not exactly been welcomed. Parvez Sharma, on the ground in Cairo, noted yesterday:

Most of them have not really seen [El Baradei] and have no idea of what he has been up to for the last three decades as they have suffered. They are angry that he decided to show up just last night and started posturing immediately as the potential savior and the best person to lead them into their uncertain future.

Whether or not this is a nation-wide feeling is unclear; El Baradei does seem to have some level of support as a non establishment figure in Egypt. But Elbaradei more certainly has a level of global support, and the US, though unfriendly to him during his International Atomic Energy Agency run, has been sending signals that they believe he can lead Egypt out of dictatorship and into a more low-profile client state status. Like Obama, his complete absence of a political history in Egypt seemed to make him the perfect agent of legitimacy.

Early last year, Elbaradei used this clout to form an umbrella organization for the opposition groups of Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood, The National Front for Change. This Front, under the leadership of Elbaradei, is now poised to assume command of the popular uprising, whether the uprising wants it or not. Elbaradei has offered to be the leader of the opposition, and do what the awesome agglomeration of protesters cannot do–talk to the Mubarak regime and arrange his exit. That very absence of capacity, may prove to be the undoing of the popular movement. It can’t last forever, and it may not be able to outlast the Mubarak regime, or US and International efforts to whittle it down to a form, bit by bit, that no longer inflames the sensibilities of the nation, but stops short of dangerous democracy.

Today, in Egypt, may be remembered as the day the uprising officially ended and became a political movement, for all the warts and deformities it will now have to carry into that realm.


Since yesterday, several major dailies have given the impression that Elbaradei is bound for bigger and better things as a result of the demonstrations that began on January 25, courtesy of a sit-down with the US government and the Mubarak regime.

The New York Times says:

Mr. ElBaradei, 68, had a fractious relationship with the Bush administration, one so hostile that Bush officials tried to get him removed from his post at the atomic watchdog agency. But as Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the secular opposition on the streets of Cairo have increasingly coalesced around Mr. ElBaradei to negotiate on their behalf, the Obama administration is scrambling to figure out whether he is someone with whom the United States can deal.

Since the protests in Egypt erupted, Obama administration officials have been trying to reach Mr. ElBaradei, but they had not made contact as of Monday afternoon, a White House official said. “I think that outreach is ongoing,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary.

Though the article goes on to describe no small amount of American terror at the idea of an Egyptian politician without a slavish devotion to the US agenda for Israel and Palestine, this to me, seemed to me the most salient point:

“Ironically, the fact that ElBaradei crossed swords with the Bush administration on Iraq and Iran helps him in Egypt, and God forbid we should do anything to make it seem like we like him,” said Philip D. Zelikow, former counselor at the State Department during the Bush years. For all of his tangles with the Bush administration, Mr. ElBaradei, an international bureaucrat well known in diplomatic circles, is someone whom the United States can work with, Mr. Zelikow said.

USA Today says:

“He’s quite qualified,” says Maher Hathout, a senior adviser with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a civil rights organization based in Los Angeles. “He’s someone who’s not tainted by the current regime and politically shrewd.”

…Even if the chaos in Egypt subsides, the country would best be served by a temporary leader who can serve while the country enacts democratic changes, says Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.

“The scenario is for some interim government of credible people no relation to the ruling party to be put in charge for 60 days or longer so the constitution can be amended,” he says. “That would allow for free and fair elections and remove the elements of a tainted regime.”

The Boston Globe similarly reports:

ElBaradei’s history of standing up to the United States on issues such as the Iraq war during his tenure at the UN agency earned him respect in Egypt and across the Middle East. “It may be that his track record of being independent of the United States, and willingness to be critical of the US, might help him now in Egypt,’’ said R. Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008…

[Ashraf] Hegazy said ElBaradei is the ideal transitional figure to unite Egyptians because he does not lead his own political party.

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