By Hani Sabra
As President Hosni Mubarak recovers from gallbladder removal surgery in Germany, he's probably
spending some time thinking about former IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei. A day
before his operation, Mubarak commented on ElBaradei's potential presidential
candidacy and said that Egypt does "not need a new national hero." That's a
significant statement considering that the 81-year-old president usually lets
his subordinates respond to issues like this one. Mubarak's sharp comments
indicate that ElBaradei's recent rhetoric has clearly unsettled him. And
looking ahead, the political temperature in Egypt will get increasingly hotter
between now and 2011, when presidential elections are scheduled to take place.
First, some context: As things stand now, ElBaradei actually can't run for president. He must be one of the leaders of a "recognized" political party in order to participate. When Mubarak engineered constitutional amendments in 2007, they were designed to ensure that members of "unrecognized" parties like the Muslim Brotherhood would be unable to field independent candidates in elections -- as it did with great success in the 2005 parliamentary elections. ElBaradei prefers to run as an independent, and he is wary of the baggage attached to being identified with one of the ineffectual "legal" parties. Given this, and the fact that the Egyptian authorities will almost certainly not heed ElBaradei's call for constitutional amendments that would make it easier for him to run, ElBaradei is unlikely to enter the presidential race in 2011. Even if he does join a party and somehow manages to participate, an opposition candidate stands virtually no chance of victory. Mubarak will likely run and will certainly win if he does. Meanwhile, his son Gamal will continue to raise his profile and likely take the reins when his father dies. (The longer that Mubarak lives, the less chance that aging security establishment figures like Omar Suleiman have to become president.)
Still, ElBaradei isn't just a passing fad. Mubarak can't simply imprison him a la Ayman Nour. He's a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and his mistreatment would put Egypt under a great deal of unwanted pressure and scrutiny. At the very least, ElBaradei will continue to be a thorn in the government's side. And since returning to Egypt for vacation last week, he has gone on the offensive. Despite almost certainly receiving calls from friendly ruling National Democratic Party members telling him to cool it, ElBaradei has refused to temper his statements about Egypt's calcified political system. He has met with his supporters and heavyweights like Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa (who was previously Egypt's popular foreign minister) and continues to talk about what he perceives as Egypt's failings because of its authoritarian political system. ElBaradei will continue to be a popular force in Egyptian politics. But several thousand Facebook fans do not make him a viable presidential candidate.
Hani Sabra is a Middle East analyst at Eurasia Group.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images