Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N.… (Joe Raedle, Getty Images )
CAIRO — Reflecting tension on the streets and sharp differences among Egypt's new authorities, the military-installed government wavered Saturday on appointing secular opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei as interim prime minister.
State media and ElBaradei's office announced that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency had been chosen for the position. But within hours, the government backtracked, announcing Saturday night that no final decision had been made.
Instead of soothing worries after the military ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last week, the flip-flop underscored Egypt's ongoing turmoil. And it reflected the divisive reputation of the former diplomat. Secular-minded opposition activists cheered news that he would become prime minister, while Islamist groups condemned it.
The Islamist Nour Party, part of the military-led coalition that ousted Morsi, threatened to withdraw from the transition process if ElBaradei were confirmed.
Cairo was tense but mostly peaceful Saturday, a day after street fighting between rival camps across the country left 36 people dead and more than 1,000 wounded. But differences over who would lead the government heightened fear of a resumption of violence. Pro- and anti-Morsi camps are calling for mass demonstrations Sunday.
It was unclear whether ElBaradei remained the leading contender for the job. Officials for Interim President Adly Mahmoud Mansour told Egyptian news media that consultations were underway.
It appears that the military hoped it could put a democratic face on its unseating of Egypt's first freely elected president by appointing ElBaradei. Mansour, the head of Egypt's constitutional court, is regarded as a figurehead.
Despite ups and downs with the military and young activists over the last two years, ElBaradei, 70, would bring international credibility and independence that could reassure Egyptian opposition groups and Western allies such as the United States. Allies have become increasingly alarmed by Egypt's bumpy road since the Arab Spring revolt against President Hosni Mubarak more than two years ago.
The appointment could also help calm global markets about Egypt's collapsing economy and speed approval of a $4.8-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, money that could help ease some of the shortages that were a prime complaint against Morsi.
But ElBaradei, who spent much of his career abroad, is reviled by Islamists as a foreign-backed outsider whose values don't reflect those of most Egyptians.
Mohamed Nour, spokesman for the Salafi Al Watan party, said ElBaradei's agreement to serve under the military-controlled interim government makes a mockery of his past insistence on following democratic practices.
"All principles were tossed aside at the first opportunity,'' Nour said.
Another Salafi group, the Nour Party, surprised many by supporting Wednesday's coup and sending representatives to stand alongside ElBaradei during the military's announcement that it was removing Morsi. But Nour's deputy leader, Ahmed Khalil, told the state news website Al Ahram that the party would not remain in the coalition under ElBaradei.
"The nomination of ElBaradei violates the road map that the political and national powers had agreed on with [army chief] Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi," he said.
Educated as an attorney, ElBaradei has struggled to reconcile his long-standing support for the rule of law with his endorsement of the coup.
When he pulled out of the presidential race last year, ElBaradei blasted the military, saying it was strangling Egypt's fledgling democracy. But in recent days he has argued that the coup was comparable to an electoral "recall," and insisted that extraordinary measures were needed to avoid a civil war.
For the military, ElBaradei would also represent somewhat of a risk, because he is unlikely to be easily manipulated or intimidated.
"He will be a strong prime minister and he has strong relations with the world, especially the Western world," Diaa Rashwan, head of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said before the government pulled back on the ElBaradei announcement. "This is a very clear sign to the outside world that Egypt's next experience will definitely be more democratic."
ElBaradei was an early leader in the 2011 revolution against Mubarak, but he lacked charisma. He favored Western-style business suits and seemed uncomfortable in street demonstrations. Some young activists still view him skeptically.
Salma Hegab, a multimedia undergraduate student and blogger, tweeted, "I can't deny feeling some optimism that ElBaradei will become prime minister, but I don't understand why he accepted the position under the military."