The ElBaradei phenomenon

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former IAEA chief, has been shaking up a stagnant Egyptian political scene ever since he returned to Cairo for a 10-day visit earlier this month. Today, he warned that Egypt's government could face a revolutionary uprising if it doesn't reform.

"People are ready, I would say even hungry for change, " he said. But he stuck with his line that he won't run for president in 2011 unless the constitution is fixed and the election is free and fair. "I am not playing by the rules of this pseudo-democracy," he insisted.

Good for him, I say. But Issandr Amrani, one of the most knowledgeable commentators on Egyptian politics around, is worried that ElBaradei's seeming reluctance to run for president could make him a flash in the pan. After all, he's going back to Vienna, and it's not clear how the movement that he has awakened survives in his absence.

"Even those who admire his stance are critical of his refusal to run unless the constitution is changed, a quixotic demand to which Mubarak has little incentive to acquiesce," Amrani writes.

I think this is half-right. A guy like Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with little accountability since 1981, doesn't do something unless he's forced to. That means ElBaradei and his supporters need to mobilize a social movement of millions -- not the thousands, or tens of thousands, that the opposition has been able to muster to date. Egypt is a country of nearly 80 million people; a few thousand demonstrators in Cairo aren't going to impress Hosni and his ambitious son Gamal very much.

But I think refusing to run for president is a smart move. It allows ElBaradei to portray himself as above politics, and it will help him build a popular front that can rally around a set of common demands, rather than being divided over his particular agenda. As someone who's well respected in Egypt and untouchable by the regime, there's nobody better positioned to lead such a movement. But it's going to take a lot more than a few TV appearances -- ElBaradei's going to have to roll up his sleeves, keep the left, the liberals, and the moderate Islamists together, peel off wavering ruling party members, and stump throughout the country educating ordinary Egyptians about their country's crisis. And he can't do that from Vienna.


Chile struck by massive 8.8 earthquake

Chile was rocked by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake early this morning, and reports are still dribbling out about its effects, including the tragic deaths so far of at least 85 people. There's still much we don't know -- particularly about what's going on in Concepcion, the country's second-largest city, which was the closest major town to the quake's epicenter. Some Flickr users, such as condeorloff, have already started uploading photos of damaged buildings some 200 miles away in Santiago, the capital. So Concepcion must be pretty bad. There have also been numerous aftershocks, and warnings about tsunamis threatening the coastline.

But  one thing is already clear: Chile was well prepared for this disaster, having been struck by 13 large earthquakes since 1973. The biggest seismic event in recorded history was in Chile, a 9.5-magnitude quake in 1960.  While the death toll will inevitably go up, and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage are likely, the country seems very resilient.

Comparisons to Haiti, whose earthquake was much smaller but several orders of magnitude more deadly, are inevitable. But not only was Chile far better prepared, it is also a vastly more developed country, one that just joined the OECD and has a highly competent government, so it's no surprise that it would be able to weather this disaster relatively calmly. Would the United States?

UPDATE: Reuters  is now reporting that the death toll has climbed past 300. There are also reports of extensive damage in Concepcion and Talcahuano, a port town that was hit by the tsunami. I've seen no reports of looting -- nor would I expect to -- but folks did try to take advantage advantage of the chaos:

At least 269 prisoners took advantage of the quake to escape from a prison about 250 miles (450 km) south of Santiago, police said. Twenty-eight of the inmates were captured and three shot.

Bloomberg reports that some 1.5 million home were destroyed, and some 2 million Chileans affected, by the quake. I'm not sure how they arrive at those estimates so quickly, but suffice it to say that this was a major tragedy and that it will take months, if not years, for Chile to recover.

UPDATE2: The death toll is now past 700.  More here.