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Let's Avoid The 'Our Man In Cairo' Syndrome

Mohamed ElBaradei -- Our man in Cairo, or just another tourist?
Mohamed ElBaradei -- Our man in Cairo, or just another tourist?
If you aren't familiar with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), you haven't been watching satellite news coverage of the protests in Egypt.

ElBaradei has been portrayed as the leading opposition figure by both Al-Jazeera International and rivals BBC and CNN. His image and opinions seem to be on every channel.

Tacitly or explicitly, international broadcasters have anointed ElBaradei the leader of the opposition, if not the front-runner in the upcoming Egyptian presidential election. Yet, in fact the opposition to the government of Hosni Mubarak is highly fractured. A January 28 headline on CNN's website read "ElBaradei: The man to lead a 'free' Egypt?"

Recently on CNN, Fareed Zakaria's interview with ElBaradei was the centerpiece for his weekly show on geopolitics. Whenever the ruling National Democratic Party makes a move or reshuffles the cabinet, the international networks run to ElBaradei for his opinion. The voices of opposition forces other than ElBaradei and, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood, are rarely heard.

But anointing one figure or group can have unexpected consequences in such situations. While ElBaradei may have had successes at the helm of the IAEA, is he really the right person for Egypt now?

A Man Of Which People?

Within Egypt, ElBaradei is a marginal figure, and he is openly ambivalent about his political goals. The January 25 protests caught him off-guard, and he rushed from the World Economic Forum in Davos to Egypt on January 27. He soon pronounced himself ready to lead the opposition, but his announcement was largely ignored.

Trying to recapture the public-relations initiative, ElBaradei chose the evening of January 30 to enter the crowd of protesters on Tahrir Square. The event was carefully staged to focus on his ample entourage, but the crowd as a whole seemed unmoved by his presence. Some of the protesters even seemed unaware that he had entered the crowd.

ElBaradei's presumed base of support is Egypt's educated and middle class, which would be most familiar with his role at the IAEA, and upon leaving the IAEA, ElBaradei did in fact attract some interest from the Egyptian bourgeoisie.

But ElBaradei subsequently squandered his initial appeal. His frequent trips abroad only reinforced the opinion that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is disconnected from Egypt's problems and politics.

In the past few weeks I have spoken to Egyptians across the country who described ElBaradei variously as a "clown" or a "tourist." The backdrop to his recent interview with Zakaria was the lush garden of his private villa, a detail not lost on Egyptian eyes.

Perhaps ElBaradei is aware of his diminished appeal as a presidential candidate and instead is angling to play a role in Egypt's future that is outside the Presidential Palace. His international credentials are perhaps better suited for the Foreign Ministry than the presidency. With a hard-fought and earnest campaign in the presidential poll, the 68-year old technocrat could raise his profile.

But if the polls are held quickly, he may not have time to accomplish that prodigious feat. If Mubarak resigns suddenly, a new election would have to be held within 60 days. At present, Vice President Omer Suleiman says the vote will take place before September.

'Our Man In Cairo'

No one foresaw the rapid demise of the Mubarak era in Egypt, much less the emerging Arab awakening that is shaking the region from Algeria to Yemen. Under such circumstances, it is natural for analysts and journalists to latch onto a familiar figure, particularly one with impeccable English.

In 1981, it should be recalled, Western leaders rallied around Mubarak following the assassination of Anwar Sadat, hoping he would maintain the status quo in the Middle East.

Mubarak did just that, but the world missed an opportunity to confront the larger issue of Salafi- and Wahabbi-inspired international terrorism, which was then in its infancy. Today, terrorists from Pakistan to Chechnya still invoke the name of Khalid Islambouli, Sadat's assassin.

Unfortunately, ElBaradei has become the latest incarnation of "our man in Cairo." The hope of some is that the Western-educated ElBaradei can address Egypt's socioeconomic problems, while maintaining the regional status quo.

Yet it is precisely this attitude to Egyptian politics that lead us to this point. Backing anyone when the situation is so clearly in flux is unfortunate and could contribute to missed opportunities for the international community to establish a meaningful relationship with a leadership selected by Egyptians themselves.

Joseph Hammond is a collegiate network fellow at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL