The Baradei Effect

By: Ayman Ismail

As the grass root campaign to nominate El-Baradei in the 2011 Egyptian presidential elections grows, and along with it the speculation whether this could happen or not, it is important to recognize three significant contributions that he has already delivered to the stagnant Egyptian political scene. He has already shattered, or at least cracked, three entrenched beliefs that are widely held by many Egyptians, and are among the reasons for the stagnant political climate.

First, he shattered the “who else?” myth. For many years, the regime has propagated the idea that there is nobody else who is capable and qualified to lead Egypt. And whenever someone who is capable and qualified started gaining popularity, whether within government institutions or elsewhere, he is often attacked, marginalized, threatened or co-opted. And in absence of active political parties, it becomes hard to create the name recognition that enables alternative leadership to evolve. This has been the core challenge behind the “who else” myth: you need someone who is capable and qualified; not tainted or part of the current ruling clique; and has a strong name recognition. Those who satisfy the first two conditions do not have access to the media or political institutions that may enable them to build their name recognition. And those who already have the name recognition are often part of the current ruling elite. El-Baradei is the first case where a potential opposition leader can claim these three qualities, primarily because he developed his name recognition abroad, and by being an outsider to the political process he has maintained his integrity and independence.

Second, he’s attacking the myth that “social and economic reform is not linked to political reform”. One of the mantra’s for Mubarak’s 30 year rule is that Egypt needs to focus on economic development, and that political development can come at a later stage when people are “ready” for it. Political reform is messy; it creates uncertainty and chaos, and can delay economic reforms. People care about bread, medicine and jobs, rather than parties and elections.

One of the most insightful statements that I recall President Mubarak making in one of his interviews describes how he felt about political parties. He described the pre-1952 political process in Egypt as highly fragmented, leading to the rise and fall of many governments, and eventually leading to the 1952 coup. This image of a fragmented political process led him to believe in the ultimate need for a single dominant party that controls the political life and prevents it from descending in chaos. And this is what he has always strived for: a dominant political party (NDP) and a number of weaklings that give legitimacy to the system.

For the past week, El-Baradei has strongly argued that “the path to getting a loaf of bread passes through a democratic political process.” This argument is critical in mobilizing the broad silent majority that has been suffering economically, but has never connected their daily suffering to the abstract political process. If this message is internalized by the broad silent majority in Egypt, it is likely to help politicize a segment that has been mostly politically apathetic and disengaged.

Third, he is quickly cracking the myth that the Gamal Mubarak transition project is a “done deal.” The proponents of the Gamal transition project, which started more than a decade ago, have worked hard to promote the idea that it’s a done deal. Their strategy has been simple: publicly and officially, they deny everything about the transition project, while presenting Gamal as the de facto president, policy maker and leader. By creating a sense of fatality about the transition they are deterring potential opponents and growing acceptance among the different government institutions. They are also using tactics that present the Muslim Brotherhood as the only other alternative opponent to Gamal, and by doing so, attempting to gain the support of broad and influential segments of the Egyptian society that vehemently opposes the potential rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The entry of El-Baradei as a credible and popular opponent is shattering this myth. He is providing Egyptians with a very attractive centrist candidate. He is advocating civil liberties and a civil state, while publicly endorsing the Muslim Brotherhood’s right to participate in the political process, which is an attractive proposition for the secular and Coptic minorities but still appealing to the strong Islamist base. He is supporting a free market economy, while advocating welfare policies of European social democrats, which is comforting the domestic and multinational business interests, while creating support among Egypt’s impoverished lower middle and poor segments. He is also taking an Arab nationalist streak, while maintaining Egypt’s commitments to peace with Israel and other critical American interests. By positioning himself as a pragmatic, centrist, nationalist candidate, he is creating a broad support base for his political and economic agenda that is likely to grow over time.

By catapulting into Egypt’s political scene and introducing himself as a credible and popular centrist candidate, he is shattering the myth that the Gamal transition project is a done deal.

The implications of these three contributions could be powerful. As the doubts on the Gamal Mubarak transition project grow, President Mubarak is more likely seek a sixth term in office in 2011. In such a scenario, the big question facing Gamal Mubarak will be “you have seeking the presidency for more than ten years, and have not yet been able to build a strong power base or gain real acceptance from the people or government institutions – can you really do it?” If the perception that Gamal has failed to position himself as a credible candidate despite more than ten years of trying, it might help brand his campaign as a failure, and push other influential institutions to seek other candidates.

Regardless of what happens in the next days, weeks and months, El-Baradei has already started to crack some of the deeply-held myths that influence the Egyptian political behavior.

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