We’re not sure if the vociferous response in the government press to Mohamed al-Baradei’s sounding out of a presidential run demonstrates a genuine fear that a credible candidate might emerge to take on the ruling dynasty, or simply a demonstration of the latest in kitchen sink technology, but we’re fairly certain he won’t win even if he does end up running. We do think, however, that if al-Baradei does run, then Mubarak the Elder will definitely run for another term rather than handing over the reins to Gamal, since the stature gap would be too large in a prospective al-Baradei-Gamal matchup. (Though we were already convinced the incumbent would run again, we’re even more convinced now.)
Another thing we’re not sure of is whether NDP politician Hossam Badrawi’s apparent revulsion at government press tactics in smearing al-Baradei was voiced out of a legitimate concern, or whether it was a calculated move in what will become a two-pronged strategy, in which the popular press attacks the would-be candidate while the “respectable” NDP welcomes his candidacy, but only if undertaken within the “constitutional framework,” which will never be altered to allow his candidacy anyway. We tend to agree with the latter part of the Arabist’s comment appended to this post (though we disagree with the first part), that al-Baradei represents the best chance in a while for a split to develop within elite opinion, which is why we’re fascinated by Badrawi’s intervention. Readers interested in the idea of elite defections and their possible consequences for democratization can read all about them in Jason Brownlee’s Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization.
Also we’re not sure what game al-Baradei is playing. We’ve heard a few different explanations, but none of them is particularly convincing. The first is that al-Baradei is using his international stature to shine a light on the absence of democracy in Egypt, and to embarrass the regime. But we are quite sure he’s smart enough to realize that the US government and the relevant European ones – those that are capable of putting pressure on the regime – are also shameless (or Realist, if you prefer) enough that they aren’t going to use their leverage in any meaningful way if their core interests aren’t threatened, regardless of the international stature of the critic. And liberal public opinion in these countries will not be mobilized to push their leaders to act unless something dramatic happens, which is also unlikely.
The second is the now familiar claim that the rather stringent conditions al-Baradei stated were in fact meant to signal that he had no plans to actually run, since the regime will never acquiesce to them. But as a professional negotiator we would expect better of the man than to bow out so quickly and in such a lame way, so we don’t think that’s a reasonable explanation.
The third, Occam’s razor explanation is that al-Baradei actually does intend to run, and is using his IAEA megaphone to create some advance buzz before his return to Egypt. The problem with this explanation is that we have no idea what al-Baradei’s electoral platform might look like, and we have trouble guessing how he might differentiate himself from the NDP, aside from his being committed to democratic norms.
This leads us to an interesting conundrum in Egyptian politics: the fact that critiques of government policies are incredibly common, but the systematic presentation of an alternative vision is comparatively rare. There are numerous reasons for this, including but not limited to the government’s acting as gatekeeper on most of the information that would make shadow government-type efforts easier to produce. But most of the parties, along with the Brotherhood, presumably have competent professionals in fields relevant to policymaking on their membership rolls, who could if pressed come up with policy prescriptions for what ails Egypt. We’re not sure why they don’t do so more often.
The Muslim Brotherhood tried once, as you might remember, but if we recall correctly the sections on economic policy, to take one example, were full of platitudes and nonsense, lest they get in the way of discussing important issues like the president’s religion. Thus what should have been a “See, we’re not that scary” moment turned into a debacle. The Brotherhood came off looking more out of touch than they probably are, and also seem to have drawn an incorrect lesson from the experience, being that one shouldn’t publicly share one’s policy ideas.
In an already established democracy, it is often possible for the opposition to gain electoral currency by simply opposing the ruling party’s agenda, particularly if the latter is already unpopular. In an authoritarian setting, however, that doesn’t seem like a viable strategy. Everyone knows the ruling party is not particularly popular, but they also seem to have realized that popularity is not that party’s goal, or rather not its primary goal. Remaining in power retains pride of place. The logical extension of this is that undermining the ruling party will take more than simply restating well-known critiques. It will require imagining a different future, in all its aspects, and not just the human rights/democracy one.
* * *
Late Update: According to TBE’s twitter sources, al-Baradei is scheduled to appear on Dream 2’s “First Edition” on Thursday, December 9 at 7 PM, for what will be his first interview since returning to Egypt. We’ll be interested to see if he talks about his actual policy stances.