Far from reactor blueprints and gamma rays, Mohamed ElBaradei slips into a garden between the pyramids and the roar of Cairo. Security guards skim courtyard walls and the conversation turns to politics, which in Egypt can be as combustible as nuclear physics.
The former head of the U.N. nuclear agency has returned to his native country to lead a movement demanding reform from President Hosni Mubarak’s government, a prospect about as likely to happen as ElBaradei’s past attempts to persuade Iran to make its nuclear program transparent.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said ElBaradei, referring to his shift from headline-prone atomic inspector to opposition figure in a police state. “I’m not a professional politician. Someone wrote the other day that I’m a hybrid politician like President Obama. Everywhere I go I see tremendous support, but how far are Egyptians willing to go?”
He added: “I keep telling them that nothing will change in a country of 80 million people through one person. This is the myth. The challenge is to demystify it. They need to grow up and understand.”
His renown has lent credibility to the National Front for Change, but the umbrella organization of opposition leaders, students, workers and celebrities has become divided. Critics say ElBaradei, who makes frequent trips abroad to tend to international obligations, is aloof and frustrated. Young activists complain that he is not daring enough, and one of the front’s leading strategists recently threatened to resign.
The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, ElBaradei is accustomed to the polished hallways of Europe and the whispered asides at the United Nations. Egyptian politics, however, is not a world of diplomacy and neat dossiers.
The country is under emergency law, dissidents end up in jail, and even a man with global stature is not likely to win concessions from the government unless he can sustain weeks of protest and drama in the streets. The ruling National Democratic Party, which once fretted over his potential to spur the masses, is less anxious these days.
The opposition has been bickering over how to defeat Mubarak for nearly 30 years. It has low public support and has presented ElBaradei with the task of sparking a national campaign that draws in the poor and the wealthy to improve a country where about 40% of the population lives on $2 a day. When he speaks about Egypt’s corruption and life under Mubarak, a quiet anger moves through ElBaradei as if he had left a house in good shape only to return years later to find it in disrepair.
“Day by day, it feels like a black hole in many ways,” he said. “Why aren’t we catching up with the rest of the world? There are 81 slums in Cairo. We need real democracy as a root for social justice. I’ve always said poverty is the most lethal weapon of mass destruction.”
The National Front for Change is seeking at least 1 million signatures on a petition calling for constitutional reform to allow for open elections, including judicial oversight and less restrictive rules on independent candidates. About 100,000 names have been collected since February, not enough to budge the government to rewrite rules that could jeopardize its hold on parliament.
“Those numbers are not critical mass,” said ElBaradei, whose appearances on TV programs have been canceled after government pressure on broadcasters. “Egyptians have been living in a culture of apathy and fear, although the fear has been slightly cracked. They don’t have self-confidence to change things. I tell them nothing will change unless you give me backbone.”
The constitution virtually prevents ElBaradei running for president as an independent. He has hinted at the possibility of a candidacy if reforms were passed, but in an interview he said his goal was to unite the nation around Western-style democracy. That works for a social movement but leaves the opposition without a marquee name for a presidential contender.
“The opposition doesn’t know what democracy is about. There hasn’t been democracy for 60 years. They’ve never been empowered,” he said. He added that if opposition figures run in the 2011 presidential election without constitutional reform, they will play into the false legitimacy of the government: “You are contributing to the decor of the regime.”
Jealousies and individual ambitions are cracking the National Front for Change. Dissidents such as Ayman Nour, who was jailed after running for president in 2005, want more limelight and a chance to lead the country. Concerns have arisen over whether ElBaradei, who lived overseas at a time when security forces grew more pervasive in muffling activist voices and crushing protests, has the mettle to challenge the government.
ElBaradei recently aligned his movement with the Muslim Brotherhood, the most potent opposition group, which wants Egypt ruled by Islamic law. The Brotherhood is an uncomfortable fit with his calls for secular democracy, but it can rally tens of thousands of voters. He is also talking to independent labor leaders. Underpaid workers, from doctors to mill hands, have staged hundreds of strikes across the country and are the most dangerous threat to the government.
Will ElBaradei go to the street if petitions and negotiations don’t force the government’s hand? On Friday, he marched in Alexandria with several thousand human rights demonstrators protesting the death of a man in police custody. The march was one of the largest in Egypt in years, but sustaining such a strategy brings out the nuclear inspector in ElBaradei, weighing numbers, logic and the probabilities of chain reactions. He said he doubts whether the rich want to risk what they have and whether the poor can afford to take a chance.
“The street strategy needs numbers,” he said. “You can’t protest with only 50 or 100 people, but you’re in a different ballgame if 100,000 people show up.” He added: “If we had 2 million petition signatures, it would be impossible for the regime not to respond. I’m now acting as an agent of change, but to be a leader of change you need numbers.”