CAIRO — Egypt's reform leader Mohamed ElBaradei withdrew from the presidential race Saturday, saying a fair election is impossible under the military's grip nearly a year after Hosni Mubarak's ouster. Many fear that the ruling generals will push through a candidate of their own to preserve their power.
The Nobel Peace laureate's pullout is a slap to the military and the credibility of its plans for Egypt's transition. He was seen as the most pro-revolution of the candidates and the strongest advocate of deep change in a country long under autocratic rule. His participation, therefore, gave a degree of legitimacy to the military-run election process.
But in a statement Saturday, ElBaradei made clear that he saw no hope that the presidential election due by the end of June would bring a real end to the military's rule, and he added a sharp criticism that the military has behaved as if Mubarak's regime never fell.
"I had said from the start that my conscience will not allow me to run for president or any official position unless there is a real democratic framework, that upholds the essence of democracy and not only its form," he said.
The military council, headed by Mubarak's defense minister of 20 years, "has insisted on going down the same old path, as if no revolution took place and no regime has fallen," he said.
ElBaradei's decision could energize the anti-military protest movement, which has been in disarray and has failed to present a unified alternative path to a transition to democracy. In a meeting with ElBaradei after his announcement Saturday, some activists expressed hope that he was now stepping forward to become a forceful, crystalizing leader for the movement.
With the first anniversary of the Jan. 25 start of the uprising that toppled Mubarak approaching, many of those who organized the protests feel that the military is keeping the structure of his regime and its own power in place. They fear that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is poised to dominate the new parliament, will cede the military continued influence over the executive in return for a freer hand in writing a new constitution.
"To have total change, we must work from outside the system," ElBaradei said in a video released later Saturday. He said he would work to unify youth groups, reclaim the goals of the revolution and address social justice, freedom and economic development.
The 69-year-old ElBaradei, who received the Nobel for his work as head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has been a frustrating figure for some activists amid Egypt's upheaval.
He had a significant role behind the scenes in putting together the network of youth activists that launched the 18-day uprising that ousted Mubarak. He has been sharply critical of the military's handling of the transition since.
But he has resisted pressure to step forward as the leader of the movement, which some feel needs a figure to unify and guide it. His reluctance gave him a Hamlet-like reputation that frustrated some activists. Many Egyptians in the broader public saw him as aloof or arrogant, or too "foreign" because of his decades living abroad.
Given that image, even some supporters worried he could not win the presidential race.
Presidential elections are key because the ruling generals have promised to hand over power to the winner.
But many activists and observers believe the military wants to ensure the race produces a president who will support its interests and allow it to have a strong voice in politics even after it formally steps aside.
The military has already tried to prevent or limit civilian oversight of its budget under the future system. After decades of military men serving as president in Egypt, the generals are unlikely to want a civilian president who might try to rein in their considerable influence over the state, economic interests or seek radical changes.
At least half a dozen other candidates have stepped forward, including ex-Arab League chief Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mubarak and a popular figure. Another figure in the race who would likely be looked on favorably by the generals is Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force pilot who was a longtime friend of Mubarak and prime minister at the height of the anti-Mubarak protests.
Moussa said he hoped ElBaradei would continue his efforts to rebuild Egypt.
"I regret ElBaradei's withdrawal from the race, and I value his role and participation in the developments that Egypt has witnessed recently," Moussa said on his Twitter account.
Also running is an Islamist, Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fottouh, a longtime liberal within the Muslim Brotherhood who has gained support among the pro-revolution crowd. Aboul-Fottouh was dismissed from the Brotherhood because he entered the presidential race after the group said it would not field a candidate.
The powerful Brotherhood continues to say it will not endorse a contender in the race. Its focus has instead been on increasing the powers of parliament, where it has emerged as the biggest faction from Egypt's nearly complete, multistage elections. A chief role of parliament will be to put together a panel to write a new constitution.
Mahmoud el-Hetta, the activist who had first floated the idea of ElBaradei as a presidential candidate in 2009, said he was distraught at first over the withdrawal decision. But after the meeting with him Saturday, el-Hetta reconsidered.
"He has once again turned things upside down, and has embarrassed other presidential candidates who have a weak chance because the military council has weakened the idea of a president," he said. "This would revive the idea that the revolution is not over and wins the heart of the youth groups."
Issandr el-Amrani, an analyst on Egypt and columnist, said ElBaradei's withdrawal is "quite an indictment for the transition."
"ElBaradei has never acted like a politician and has always acted like the moral conscience of the country," he said.
ElBaradei has long been critical of the military's handling of the transition. The process has often been confused and nonsensical with shifting timetables — for example, presidential candidates will begin campaigning even before the constitution is written defining the president's role.
ElBaradei and other liberals feel the transition has now become solely an issue between the military and the Brotherhood. The military council "only needs to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood. He rejects that ... it is not an inclusive process," el-Amrani.
His decision to stand down from elections, and thus — in the revolutionaries' eyes — to not play the army's game, may restore some of his standing.
Activist and blogger Omar Elhady wrote on his Twitter account: "ElBaradei's withdrawal proves he is a respectable and devoted man. I had stopped supporting him as president a while back. Now I see him as a national leader above official positions, and feared by presidents."
But some saw in his withdrawal a blow to the youth camp who could have found in him a rallying point in the upcoming elections.
"This is very upsetting," said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, a member of the Socialist Alliance, a youth party that contested the parliamentary elections and who also attended the stormy meeting with ElBaradei Saturday. "We lost a candidate that could have proved a challenge to the military council. He pulled out and didn't tell us what is the alternative."
NBC News' Ayman Mohyeldin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.