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Has Mohamed ElBaradei's time arrived?

The veteran diplomat, international lawyer and Nobel Prize winner has emerged as a high-profile opposition figure over the past few weeks and a possible candidate to replace fallen autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Image: ElBaradei willing to lead an interim government in Egypt
Mohamed ElBaradei returned to Egypt three days after massive street protests began.Mohamed Omar / EPA file
/ Source: Reuters

For a man who describes himself as a potential "agent of change" in Egypt, Mohamed ElBaradei draws decidedly mixed reviews.

The veteran diplomat, international lawyer and Nobel Prize winner, has emerged as a high-profile opposition figure over the past few weeks and a possible candidate to replace fallen autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

But Washington and Tel Aviv are deeply suspicious of the 68-year-old. They along with other allies were frustrated by what they said were blatant attempts by ElBaradei — who ran the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1997 to 2009 — to undermine their efforts to ratchet up the pressure on Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion and later on Iran over its suspected nuclear arms program.

More importantly, the citizens of the Arab world's most populous state have hardly embraced ElBaradei since his return on Jan. 27, three days after mass street protests against Mubarak's rule began. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the movement that ousted the regime was its lack of a single leader.

Egyptians seem to respect ElBaradei but are wary of the long periods he spent away from the country. The army, which will surely continue to play a pivotal role in Egypt's leadership, is also cagey about this outsider.

"ElBaradei won't do," said Khaled Ezzat, 34, an information technology engineer in Tahrir Square in late January. "He doesn't have the experience here and he's a little weak."

At the same time, those who know ElBaradei say he may be just the man Egypt needs. In more than a dozen interviews over the past week, a number of senior advisers who served the Egyptian at the IAEA and diplomats who worked closely with him during his many years in Vienna, describe ElBaradei as charismatic and eloquent, a man with average management skills but an innate ability to inspire people. If his time at the IAEA is anything to go by, ElBaradei is both politically savvy and prepared to get tough.

The man himself downplays any run for the presidency, though he has not ruled it out altogether. He hopes the next president will be in the "40s or early 50s", he said. But he is ready to help transform Egypt into a democracy that treats people with dignity and respects human rights.

"Right now the Arab world is in a sorry state of affairs," he told Reuters a few days before Mubarak stepped down. "Right now we have six or seven civil wars and most (Arab nations) are characterized as authoritarian countries."

"Egypt has always been a locomotive for change, for modernization, for moderation," he said. "Hopefully it will pull up the Arab world and help it catch up with the rest of the world."

In Cairo, mixed feelings
ElBaradei's cosmopolitanism may be an advantage among some Egyptians but it is a source of suspicion for others.

When he first returned home to publicly oppose Mubarak in early 2010, authorities harassed his supporters and the official media tried to ridicule him, saying he knew nothing about Egypt and had no political experience.

The government's campaign appears to have worked, at least in part. "I'm not convinced by ElBaradei, even as a transitional figure, he hasn't really been present in the country," Omar Mahdi, a sales manager, told Reuters in the first days of the protests.

Crucially, ElBaradei lacks deep connections with the military — a key factor in Egyptian power politics.

All the same, ElBaradei's arrival in Cairo just as the protests got under way emboldened the crowds at a critical point. Could he end up being a sort of compromise figure, somebody who threatens neither the army nor the democracy movement?

"ElBaradei is a very acceptable option because he will not stay," said Islam Ashraf, 24, a quality operations coordinator. "But we're not really interested in faces. What matters to us is having another system."

Suspicion in Washington and Tel Aviv
U.S. officials have been reluctant to talk publicly about who they would prefer to be in charge of Egypt. Privately, however, they doubt ElBaradei is a serious player in Egyptian politics.

The Obama administration is also loath to be seen as anointing a potential successor to Mubarak. Those factors played a role in the studied indifference with which the United States responded to ElBaradei's return to Egypt.

ElBaradei also has critics in Washington, Israel, London, Berlin and Paris who have not forgotten their frustration at what they describe as his attempts to undermine their drive to ratchet up the pressure on Iran over a nuclear program they fear is intended to develop weapons capability but Tehran says is for peaceful energy purposes only.

Suspicion of ElBaradei runs especially deep in Israel.

Several former IAEA officials told Reuters ElBaradei's support for the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East is widely viewed in Israel as a call for the unilateral destruction of Israel's nuclear arsenal — the existence of which the Jewish state neither confirms nor denies — which would render Israel vulnerable to attack in a hostile Middle East.

"I have my disagreements with the Israelis just as I have had with the Americans," ElBaradei said.

One of those disagreements concerned the Israeli bombing in September 2007 of what U.S. and Israeli officials said was a nascent nuclear reactor in Syria built with the help of North Korea. One former IAEA official said ElBaradei "went through the roof" when he found out about the Israeli strike against the facility, which Syria says was not a nuclear reactor.

Another diplomat said ElBaradei took the Israeli action as a "personal attack against him" and a "vote of no-confidence" because the Israelis decided to bomb the facility rather than ask the IAEA to confront Syria and inspect the site.

"The Israelis decided that ElBaradei could not be trusted to do anything about it so they chose to act pre-emptively and solve the problem," the diplomat said.

Two years later, in September 2009, Israel and France suggested that ElBaradei was sitting on IAEA findings that pointed more concretely to a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program. ElBaradei angrily denied any such cover-up. The Israeli ambassador to the IAEA made clear his disapproval of the outgoing IAEA chief and conspicuously left his seat empty during a closed-door gathering of agency member states who took turns heaping praise on ElBaradei for his 12 years at the nuclear watchdog.

ElBaradei doesn't hide his disapproval of other Israeli policies, especially those regarding the Palestinians. But he does say that Israel's right to exist is beyond question.

"Israel is here to stay," he told Reuters. "The idea that a democratic Egypt will cancel the peace treaty and go to war with Israel — this is total nonsense. Nobody wants to see yet another fight or confrontation."