Austrian Airlines Flight 863 touched down in Cairo at 5:30 p.m. today, completing its journey from Vienna two and a half hours late. A jubilant crowd of Egyptians waited in Cairo's airport lobby, anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 people, tracking the flight's progress carefully as they waved Egyptian flags and sang the national anthem. Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei -- former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and potential presidential contender -- was returning home.
ElBaradei's return represents a headache for Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's 81-year-old president. Mubarak is widely believed to be shepherding his son, Gamal, into the presidency, possibly as early as the upcoming 2011 presidential election. But this past December, ElBaradei dropped a bombshell that complicated Mubarak's plans: He would consider a run for Egypt's presidency -- provided that the government ensured a fair campaign and revised the restrictive amendments to the Egyptian Constitution that outline who can contend for the presidency.
FP's exclusive conversation with ElBaradei
Interview by David Kenner
ElBaradei's third term at the IAEA expired on Nov. 30, 2009. Since then, he has been living in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, reportedly tying up loose ends after 12 years at the helm of the organization. In January, he gave an interview to Foreign Policy where he elaborated on his career at the IAEA and expanded on his future in Egyptian politics.
There was no shortage of skeptics who maintained that ElBaradei's return would elicit little more than an ambivalent reaction from the Egyptian public. Yes, the "Draft ElBaradei" campaign boasts an official-looking website and a Facebook group of over 60,000 members. But how many of those e-supporters would actually be motivated -- and risk the potential government crackdown -- to attend ElBaradei's homecoming? "In Egypt, we have a big gap between virtual life and reality," worried Amr Choubaki, an Egyptian analyst with the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "Many people participate in the movement on the Internet, but the majority of them don't go to the street."
For today, at least, the enthusiasm for ElBaradei's campaign exceeded expectations. The fear of a crackdown, especially following the arrest of two opposition activists of the April 6 Movement on Thursday, turned out to be unnecessary. Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University, credited the late arrival of ElBaradei's flight as part of the reason for the strong turnout. "It was actually a help to us, because people realized the airport was safe," he said. "Those at the airport were able to contact their friends and tell them that there was no intervention from the security services."
FP contributor Issandr Amrani's Twitter feed (@arabist) provided a running commentary on the events transpiring at Cairo International Airport. Egyptian security attempted to convince ElBaradei to avoid the crowd by leaving through the VIP lounge, but he refused. The crowd's size kept him from leaving through the airport lobby, however, so he exited through another terminal -- which, as onlookers pointed out, precluded the need to give a speech.
If ElBaradei does decide to pursue a presidential run, he will have at least one factor working for him: the unmistakable appetite for change in Egypt after nearly three decades of Mubarak. "People are bored and tired of the Mubaraks -- not only of the father, but of the wife, and of the two sons -- who have dominated Egyptian politics for so long," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist and noted Egyptian dissident. "[ElBaradei] is equipped as well as anyone can be for the position ... now the only question is whether he can build the infrastructure and the enthusiasm to overcome the obstacles that remain."
And there is no shortage of obstacles. The odds are still overwhelmingly against ElBaradei wresting power from the hands of the Mubaraks. To build on the momentum achieved during his homecoming, ElBaradei must overcome a number of daunting challenges: the coercive power and legal restrictions raised by the Mubarak regime, the fractured nature of the anti-Mubarak opposition -- and perhaps even his own ambivalence about playing a role in Egyptian public life.