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Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei returns to Egypt

ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear agency, now leads a group seeking constitutional reforms. His return could further energize protests against President Hosni Mubarak.

January 27, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Mohamed ElBaradei, formerly chief of the U.N. nuclear regulatory agency, has indicated he will join protest rallies in Egypt planned for Friday.
Mohamed ElBaradei, formerly chief of the U.N. nuclear regulatory agency,… (Reuters )

Reporting from Cairo — Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who formerly headed the U.N. nuclear regulatory agency, has returned to Egypt in a move expected to increase political pressure on President Hosni Mubarak as a new wave of nationwide protests are called for Friday.

ElBaradei's presence has energized activists who for months had urged him to take his National Front for Change to the streets. His arrival coincides with a decision by the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition group, to encourage its young members to join the protests. The Islamist organization hasn't officially endorsed the demonstrations amid fear that its leaders could be imprisoned in a crackdown.

The 68-year-old ElBaradei, a lawyer, has been reluctant to join street protests in the past but indicated he would attend the rallies Friday. It's uncertain whether he has the tenacity and charisma to lead a mass movement or whether he would become another frustrated figure in a disparate opposition aiming to end the autocratic three-decade-long rule of Mubarak, a key U.S. ally.

The Obama administration has publicly urged Mubarak to allow protests to continue, although it is deeply concerned about potential upheaval that could result.

"I will participate," ElBaradei said Thursday after leaving his residence in Vienna, where he had headed the U.N. agency, to fly to Egypt. "I wish we did not have to go out on the streets to press the regime to act."

The addition of ElBaradei and the Brotherhood are major provocations to the regime, pitting an internationally respected negotiator and the Middle East's largest Islamist group against an authoritarian government long criticized for political repression and brutality.

Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party has been stunned by the breadth and anger of protests that erupted Tuesday, inspired by this month's successful uprising in Tunisia.

"I believe ElBaradei's return will increase the already existing political momentum and the protest movement," said George Ishak, a longtime opposition leader. "Many Egyptians are looking for someone to lead their efforts and they've seen this leader in ElBaradei."

At this point, one of the major forces behind the demonstrations has been the April 6 youth movement, consisting largely of educated middle-class students and workers. The group, using Facebook and other Internet social networks, is urging Egyptians to follow the examples of unrest sweeping the region, including new outbreaks in Yemen and Jordan.

Organizers said the protests would begin after Friday prayers with demonstrators marching from mosques around Cairo and converging on Tahrir Square, near the parliament. The question is how many people will venture out to confront the police blanketing the city. In previous years, protests quickly faded in a mix of complacency and fear.

ElBaradei and the Brotherhood have faced other problems in their fight against one of the most entrenched police states in the region. Mubarak's government was concerned a year ago when ElBaradei started his National Front campaign for constitutional reforms. But months later, when ElBaradei did not summon the masses to rallies, party officials decided he was too timid, and the opposition too divided, to threaten their hold on power.

The Brotherhood has been struggling with internal rifts as some members want the organization to remain a political force and others argue that it should center its mission on grass-roots social and religious programs. These pressures, along with the arrest of hundreds of its members, many of them top leaders, have weakened the group in recent years.

"The Brotherhood has the numbers to take the masses to the streets and topple the regime," said Abdelhalim Kandil, leader of the Kifaya, or Enough, opposition movement. "They're still not yet ready for that radical step to take on the regime. They're prisoners of history. They think, 'What if we try to get rid of Mubarak and fail? Can we survive another crackdown?'"

The weakness became apparent in November when the Brotherhood, which controlled 20% of parliament seats, was trounced in elections widely regarded as rigged by the ruling party. The defeat was another move by the government to isolate the organization from political life.

The Brotherhood, which renounced violence decades ago, has been targeted by security forces and been cast by successive Egyptian governments as an extremist threat determined to spread Islamic Sharia law across the region. It has conservative leaders but the group, whose members include hundreds of thousands of professionals, is more moderate than many Islamist organizations, despite its belief that only a Muslim should be elected president of Egypt.

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