TBE WEB EXCLUSIVE
If there’s one thing that’ll awaken TBE from the non-alcoholic champagne and caviar haze in which we currently live, it’s poorly argued journalism about Mohamed ElBaradei. Reading the recent commentary on ElBaradei in Newsweek, we kept having to check the URL, to make sure we weren’t reading the aggressively illogical and agrammatical musings of a certain “journalist” whose comments, despite being free, often leave one demanding a refund.
Since we’re shorter on time than we used to be, we’ve simply reprinted the article with some parenthetical annotation. Following the article are a few more thoughts, and an invitation to the article’s author to clarify a few points.
Paved With Good Intentions
(We assume the journalist didn’t write the headline, so will refrain from criticizing. Also.)
When Mohamed ElBaradei’s flight touched down at Cairo International Airport on Feb. 19, he was greeted by hundreds of supporters waving homemade ELBARADEI FOR PRESIDENT banners. After more than 20 years abroad, the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief (and Nobel Peace laureate) had returned home to challenge President Hosni Mubarak’s repressive 29-year rule. Although ElBaradei still hasn’t even announced his candidacy, the internationally respected and domestically lauded reformer has been openly criticizing the Mubarak regime for months—first in Vienna, where he was based, and now from Egypt. ElBaradei’s potential candidacy has galvanized the domestic opposition as the country prepares for presidential elections in September 2011. (Starts off fine.)
But while the kindly, honest technocrat seems like a self-evidently good choice for leader, his candidacy would spell disaster for an opposition movement already enfeebled by failure. The “unity” platform he preaches has already elicited bickering— (Bickering – amongst the Egyptian opposition??? Grab the smelling salts, we’re feeling faint at the mere thought.) a dangerous test drive for the real thing. (The second half of this sentence doesn’t really make sense.) If he really makes a run, not only will he lose, but he would fracture the fragile coalition of Mubarak’s opponents, leaving them weaker and more demoralized than ever. (Where, we wonder, does the journalist keep her demoralizationometer?) That, in turn, would only empower the despotic president. (He was on the brink of failure. If it weren’t for that pesky do-gooding candidate, he wouldn’t’ve gotten away with it. Scooby-dooby-do.) If ElBaradei wants what’s good for the opposition, he should get out of the way. (Definitely!!! They’ll never succeed if they have a figure to rally around who’s also able to mobilize new constituencies. Also.)
First of all, his candidacy would shatter the coalition binding Mubarak’s opponents. (The article to which the Newsweek article links here actually details an ElBaradei initiative uniting various strands of the opposition, an odd choice to say the least.) ElBaradei’s right to enter the political fray is supported by this coalition—political parties, youth groups, and members of Egypt’s most powerful opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. But if he actually runs, the alliance can’t last. “The opposition itself is extremely divided and ElBaradei is a symbol primarily because he’s not beholden to any of them … The moment he [moves beyond the common ground of political reform], he starts alienating specific opposition groups,” says Nathan Brown, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. (Perhaps that’s why he’s stressing constitutional reforms that would allow them all to run on their own platforms!!!) He can’t win the support of both secular reformists and Islamists (he wouldn’t be the first to try and fail). (A crystal ball and a demoralizationometer! This is clearly a journalist with many precise instruments at her disposal.) Getting on the ballot will require announcing a campaign platform— (We weren’t aware of that requirement. Is it constitutional?) like where he stands on the role of religion in the Egyptian state—that will divide groups that disagree with each other on fundamental principles. (So the opposition was held together by a thread before ElBaradei’s arrival on the scene. And his presence might eventually sharpen the contradictions to the point where they become untenable. And no one in the opposition is currently aware of these potential contradictions?)
Even if ElBaradei could keep the broader movement together, he’d splinter the most important part of it—the Muslim Brotherhood. (How dare he break up that happy marriage? Also.) Although officially outlawed, Brotherhood candidates running as independents swept the 2005 parliamentary election, winning 20 percent of seats. (Sweeping an election usually means something quite different.) Today, the Islamist group is suffering from an internal divide that threatens their future political participation. The older conservative leaders want the younger politically motivated members to stay out of politics and focus instead on the core mission of social work. (A simplistic analysis.) But those young brothers will likely come out in support of ElBaradei anyway, ruining party cohesion and deepening the group’s generational divide. “They are already fragmented,” says Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian political blogger. “ElBaradei would fragment them even more.” (The gall of some people…) That’s exactly the outcome Mubarak wants. (We thought he was Egyptian, but perhaps ElBaradei is actually Manchurian?)
ElBaradei would also shake the secular groups. Ayman Nour, a reform candidate who spent more than three years in jail on bogus charges, came in a distant second in the 2005 sham presidential election. He announced his candidacy with the Al Ghad Party for this cycle last week, but, he acknowledges, ElBaradei would probably win his base. (Also he can’t run because of his conviction, but let’s not let that stop us.) “The supporters for change in Egypt are pretty much the same people,” Nour says. Splitting an already small constituency is no way to acquire political power. (Yes, because every single person in Egypt who yearns for change definitely voted for Nour in the last election. Also that constituency for change is small.)
Elsewhere among the secularists, egos are already colliding. A Facebook group called ElBaradei for President has more than 100,000 members, but Ahmed Salah, a leading member of Sixth of April youth—one of the country’s largest anti-regime protest groups and the one responsible for rounding up supporters at ElBaradei’s homecoming demonstration— (We don’t think they were the only ones.) accuses the Facebook group’s founder of sidelining the organization and trying to stop them from meeting with ElBaradei (presumably as a gambit for influence and credit). (Did you hear that joke “How many prima donnas does it take to change a regime?” Also, how about interviewing the group’s founder to get his side of the story?)
Finally, ElBaradei may be causing all this angst for nothing, because it’s not even clear he can run. (He should be charged immediately with involuntary angst-causing and brought before a military court.) Constitutional amendments passed in 2005 place strict limits on potential presidential competition. Independent candidates are required to provide 250 supporting signatures from a combination of elected officials in national and local government—offices controlled by Mubarak’s allies. (They wouldn’t help put someone on the ballot who could pose a legitimate threat to the president.) (Thanks for that parenthetical clarification.) Otherwise, candidates must be nominated by a political party where they’ve held a leadership position for at least one year. ElBaradei himself doesn’t even seem gung-ho. He has announced his own preconditions to running, including elections with international monitors—something Mubarak has never allowed before. (Refusing to run in rigged elections? What a wuss.)
Although the wave of support for ElBaradei shows that Egyptians hunger for political change, he won’t be able to channel idealistic fervor at the poll. It’s demoralizing enough for a national hero to damage an already weak opposition; it’s worse when he inhibits any real chances for political change (they were so promising, after all) and strengthens the president he claims to oppose. Everyone knows the names of a few great men who overthrew an authoritarian regime on a wave of popular support—Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, Lee Kwan Yew. But many more equally worthy ones have failed, instead helping those regimes to thrive; (Change is never gradual. One either becomes a national hero or is consigned to the dustbin full stop.) history quickly buries their names. ElBaradei shouldn’t make himself one of them. (This is a lesson for everyone. If there is even a remote chance of failure, better not to try something at all. Words to live by, for sure.)
A couple slightly less sarcastic points and questions:
As we mentioned briefly above, the article never once mentions that ElBaradei has, from the beginning, stressed that he’s more interested in changing the constitution than in running for president. Even if the more narrow point of the article, that ElBaradei should not run for president, were true, not including that information is journalistic malpractice.
Since the journalist has no qualms about dispensing advice to Dr. ElBaradei, we were wondering what her advice to him as to his proper role would be? Since she has so much faith in the oppositions’ ability to succeed in achieving its goals without Dr. ElBaradei, we also wonder how she sees that occurring, considering their long-running inability to weaken the regime’s grip on power.
As we’ve written previously, we think Dr. ElBaradei’s signal accomplishment so far is mobilizing new constituencies for change, which the opposition has failed to do (with the understanding that it is not necessarily the opposition’s fault, as the regime has made the price of political participation very high). This is another salient fact never explored in the article. Why?
As far as we know, the journalist who wrote this piece usually writes straight news, primarily for the Christian Science Monitor. Is she forsaking news writing altogether to become a professional pundit?
TBE’s editors know the journalist, Sarah Topol, socially, and, though we’re not in Cairo, have heard that she stands by the arguments she made in the article. If that is the case, we’d like to offer her a forum to answer our criticisms, either in comments or via email (which we’ll then publish), since healthy debate is the lifeblood of democracy.