ElBaradei's Last Stand
ElBaradei's return to Egypt could offer the opportunity for a good alternative to the current leaership.
The return of Mohamed ElBaradei to Egypt a year ago and him joining the ranks of its political opposition created lots of expectations and frustration.
He has been seen as an agent for democracy, hope and change in a country ruled by dictatorships for decades.
Yet, many feel he may have wasted an opportunity and failed many Egyptians who believed in him.
Thus, when he announced yesterday that he is returning to Egypt from a trip to Europe to join the ongoing and unprecedented protests against the ruling regime, his announcement was met with initial scepticism.
Some of the activists who have been participating in the latest protests in the street and online have sharply criticised his attitude toward politics in Egypt.
Gamal Eid, the director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, an Egyptian human rights group, says
"whoever wants to be a leader of a democratic movement should be working among them. He cannot lead a real battle against corruption and authoritarianism by remote control or Twitter. People don't forget who stood next to them and who deserted them when they were calling for democracy and fighting corruption."
"My question to ElBaradei is if people started moving and taking by force their right for democracy, what is your role?"
When ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear chief and Noble Peace prize winner, announced in late 2009 that he was returning to settle in Egypt after decades abroad and to work to move the country toward democracy, it created political waves.
Many welcomed him. Thousands of political activists from various political groups and ideologies greeted him at Cairo airport. Many of them rallied around him and formed ad hoc political coalitions supporting his cause, such as the National Association of Change.
They looked at him as a potential - and maybe the only - alternative leader who could unite the country, provide a credible replacement to the ruling regime, and move the country forward toward real democracy in a critical time.
They thought he offered the Egyptian opposition something it had been searching for - an internationally recognised face who could speak the language of democracy and who did not belong to any specific domestic political group.
Other independent voices were more cautious.
They thought ElBaradei was out of touch with the country's problems after living abroad for three decades. They feared he had little personal charisma, no grassroots in Egypt, and no experience in challenging Hosni Mubarak's powerful regime, which had been ruling the country for the last few decades, and who inherited from his predecessors a centralised state protected by gigantic security institutions.
Still, the pro-government media launched a campaign to discredit him, bringing more attention and public sympathy to his efforts.
Yet, a year after his return ElBaradei did not rise up to the challenge.
He travelled abroad frequently, forcing some of his staunch supporters - such as Hassan Nafeah, a political science professor who led the NAC during its first few months - to publicly criticise ElBaradei's "absence from Egypt, which has made the change movement lose a lot of the momentum it created since he returned."
In addition, ElBaradei failed to unite the opposition under his leadership before the parliamentary elections in November, when they were still divided over participating.
Initially, several major parties and groups, including the liberal Wafd party and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, decided to participate in the elections when the NAC and some other political parties boycotted it.
ElBaradei also acted in a calculated and elitist way, preferring to travel overseas often and to participate in planned public campaigns and gatherings. Obviously, his approach disappointed an opposition hungry for change and activism.
To his credit, ElBaradei was able to work with many opposition groups, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood - the largest and most organised group in the country - who were rejected not only by the ruling National Democratic Party but also by staunch secular opposition groups such as the leftist Tajamou party, who did not encourage cooperation with ElBaradei from the beginning.
ElBaradei's openness to work with the Brotherhood and many others, despite strong opposition from rival opposition groups, was welcomed by many.
He was also credited for his decision not to participate in the parliamentary elections, which was eventually boycotted by most of the opposition parties and groups who participated in its first round after complaints of widespread use of corruption and vote rigging. The elections ended with an overwhelming victory for the NDC and a devastating loss for the opposition, unprecedented in the last decade atleast.
ElBaradei's decision not to participate in any elections under the current political and legal rules proved wise and farsighted. He has always advocated a full change of the Egyptian political system as a pre-condition for political participation.
He thought that the rules of the current political game in Egypt were unfairly drawn by the ruling party which could only reproduce dictatorships, and that any participation in such a system would only give legitimacy to an authoritarian regime unwilling to change.
His insistence on full change was very similar to the demands of the latest youth protests in Egypt.
Despite criticisms of ElBaradei's decision return to Egypt, his announcement quickly caught attention and some enthusiasm.
George Ishaq, a former coordinator of Kefaya - an opposition movement that caught momentum in Egypt in the last five years - and a senior leader of NAC, says that ElBaradei "is one of the best figures in the Egyptian political arena today... a symbol of change in Egypt that Egyptians should rally around."
Ishaq thinks that ElBaradei should join the protests in the streets on Friday, called by ElBaradei a "Friday of the Martyrs", referring to those killed in the last protests.
The ongoing unprecedented protest gives ElBaradei a second and rare opportunity to prove his leadership.
It could be a second rare chance for ElBaradei if not the last one.
To take advantage of the opportunity, ElBaradei should join the masses, show sympathy and compassion and give up his cold diplomatic image.
He should give credit to the youth and the groups that have led the opposition so far and deny those who accuse them of trying to take over a movement.
He should be what many Egyptians search for: a credible, respected, and unifying face for change.
"ElBaradei has to stand with people, shoulder-to-shoulder. He should leave their victories and defeats. Then people can decide if he is a national leader and if he is up to the responsibility," says Eid.
© 2011 Al-Jazeera