The Would-Be Prime Minister: Could ElBaradei Stabilize Egypt?

He may not be a man of all the people, but as Prime Minister, Mohamed ElBaradei could bring his country's new government the international credibility it now lacks

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Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei’s ascension to the position of interim Prime Minister was derailed at least temporarily on Saturday night amid confusion over whether he remains a viable candidate. Just days after the military-enforced ouster of Mohamed Morsi, several media outlets — including the state-run Middle East News Agency — reported that ElBaradei had been chosen. But within hours, a spokesman for interim President Adli Mansour apologetically announced that no decision had been made.

The 71-year-old ElBaradei would not be a surprising choice for Prime Minister. In a sense, he has been auditioning for the role for the past three years, and he would bring administrative experience, a corruption-free reputation and solid revolutionary credentials. However, he would not be an easy choice either. ElBaradei is despised by Islamists, and not just the Muslim Brotherhood — Salafi factions like the Nour Party also view him with open hostility. In fact, much of the speculation in the aftermath of Saturday night’s ElBaradei reversal centered on the possibility of an 11th-hour Nour veto. The Islamist party openly supported and endorsed Morsi’s ouster, and their presence in the transitional coalition is crucial to counteract Brotherhood claims that the military’s move against Morsi was a war on political Islam.

(MORE: Egypt’s New President Asserts Authority)

If ElBaradei does become interim leader, it would herald a crucial and challenging new phase both for the fragile and wounded Egyptian democratic experiment and personally for ElBaradei himself. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, has seen his political fortunes soar and plunge repeatedly in the past few years.

For much of 2010, ElBaradei-mania ran wild in Egypt. After retiring from the IAEA at the end of 2009, he immediately began speaking out against the entrenched regime of Hosni Mubarak and pushing for greater political freedoms. He returned to Egypt in February 2010 to a reception worthy of a rock star. His arrival was covered on live television, the crush of well-wishers was so dense that ElBaradei had to leave the airport terminal though a side exit.

The following months were a honeymoon of sorts for ElBaradei and Egypt. From the very beginning, it was clear that he had tapped into something primal in the beleaguered Egyptian political psyche. The independent press breathlessly covered his every movement. Meanwhile, the state-owned newspapers and television stations spent much of this period acting like he didn’t exist.

(PHOTOSEgyptians Protest the Rule of Morsi, Celebrate Ouster)

But somewhere along the line, his movement floundered, partially through ElBaradei’s own decisions and failings. He refused to join street protests, disappointing many of the hard-core activists who wanted him to lead from the front. His travel schedule kept him outside Egypt so much that it became a running joke among his senior deputies. One of those deputies — who quit the position after about six months of working with ElBaradei — later described him to me as a disastrous administrator: imperious, stubborn and more used to issuing orders than considering contrary opinions. The bookish former diplomat seemed simply ill-suited to the role. He rarely appeared in public, and when he did, ElBaradei seemed distinctly uncomfortable.

I recall a June 2010 rally that revealed much about ElBaradei’s personality and the expectations he faced. It was an anti-police-brutality demonstration in Alexandria three weeks after future revolutionary icon Khaled Saeed had been publicly beaten to death by police officers. Anger was running high, and ordinary apolitical citizens were starting to uncharacteristically take to the streets. ElBaradei’s planned attendance had stoked expectations that this would be the real start of his street-level campaign against the Mubarak regime.

Instead, he lasted less than 10 minutes in public, waving to the crowd and giving a short interview to CNN before departing. The disappointment among spectators was palpable. In contrast, Hamdeen Sabahi, a veteran opposition activist who would later go on to finish third in last year’s presidential vote, was still there an hour later in a sweat-soaked suit, hugging well-wishers, posing for pictures.

(MORE: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Outrage: Protests and Gunfire Follow Morsi’s Ousting)

In December 2010, I interviewed ElBaradei for more than an hour at his home in a posh gated community near the Pyramids. He struck me as a sincere, intelligent man who clearly understood the depths of Egypt’s problems and was upset about all the right things. He also appeared at times a bit arrogant, inflexible and sheltered; I couldn’t help but ask him about that day in Alexandria. When I put forth the theory that he just didn’t seem comfortable being the center of attention in large crowds, the normally self-assured and verbose ElBaradei actually stammered a bit, seemingly lost for words. His wife Aida, who was sitting with us, chimed in reassuringly, “Don’t worry, you’ll get better at it.”

To his credit, ElBaradei never seemed at ease with the mantle of savior. Even at the heights of his popularity before the revolution, he repeatedly stated that people should stop looking to him to personally “save” Egypt. “I keep saying, ‘I am not the messiah.’ I keep, if you like, dampening their expectations. If you are waiting for a horseman on a white horse, the bad news is he’s not coming,” ElBaradei told me in December 2010. “I don’t want to replace a one-person regime with another one-person regime. I’m trying to convert Egypt into institutions.”

By early 2011, ElBaradei and his movement had essentially been marginalized. His critics saw it as entirely fitting that he was in Vienna on Jan. 25, 2011, when the uprising that would finally oust Mubarak began. He was regarded by many as a television-studio politician, comfortable giving interviews and lectures but with no taste for ground-level politics and no affinity for the people. That view likely underestimates the contribution he made in helping set the stage for the 2011 revolution. Part of the reason that ElBaradei disappointed so many people in Egypt was that their expectations for him were simply unrealistic — he was overrated so long that he might have become underrated.

(VIDEO: 10 Questions for Mohamed ElBaradei)

Following the revolution, he became a strident critic of  the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader, Morsi, who became Egypt’s first democratically elected President in June 2012. Eventually, ElBaradei took a more direct role in politics — forming his own Dustour (Constitution) Party. But he never seemed to seriously consider running for President himself. Those who have known, have worked with and respect ElBaradei often acknowledge that he’s just not a street-level politician — which is polite code for saying he’ll never get elected to anything.

Opinions on ElBaradei inside Egypt remain decidedly mixed. Islamists of varying stripes seem to react to him with borderline revulsion, and loyalists of the old Mubarak regime (who were part of the crowds cheering for Morsi’s downfall this week) likely feel the same way. Even hard-core secularist revolutionaries seem fairly lukewarm about him.

But ElBaradei could bring much needed international credibility to the Prime Minister role — something Egypt’s transitional post-Morsi government is sorely lacking. Multiple foreign governments, if not the U.S., have already labeled Wednesday’s ouster of Morsi as a blatant military coup of Egypt’s first democratically elected leader — prompting an outraged and defensive reaction from the anti-Morsi camp. ElBaradei has already shown a willingness to put his personal credibility on the line to defend the removal of Morsi as a necessary and popularly supported correction to save the country from disaster. Now we just have to wait and see if he gets the chance.

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.