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In the more than 20 days since former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Mohamed ElBaradei landed in Cairo amid enthusiastic calls for political change, responses on the part of the ruling regime have been muted.
ElBaradei has coupled his calls for reform with the possibility of running in upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for late 2011--a possibility severely undermined by a number of constitutional restrictions. Judging by official press coverage, however, ElBaradei's arrival appeared to go almost unnoticed by the ruling regime.
Whether the regime was merely “caught off guard,” as one Egyptian blogger suggested, or whether it reflects confidence in the ineffectiveness of the ElBaradei campaign remains uncertain.
In the last three weeks, the government press appears to have simply ignored the ElBaradei phenomenon, with coverage of his 19 February arrival limited to a short report in flagship state daily Al-Ahram saying only that he had been officially received by Foreign Ministry officials. But popular support for ElBaradei as a would-be presidential candidate--expressed by some 1000 supporters that turned out at the airport on the day of his arrival--did not make it into the pages of the official press.
Some suggest that the silence on the issue on the part of state media was not deliberate. “There's nothing the ruling party needs to worry about,” said Gehad Auda, member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)'s influential Policies Secretariat. “There's nothing that the party feels it needs to react to. There’s no real campaign, no clear institutional process.”
A political scientist, Auda recognizes the existence of a popular impetus for political reform, occasionally punctuated by sporadic protests and demonstrations. But the phenomenon, he believes, amounts to little more than this.
Nevertheless, in televised statements earlier this week that attracted considerable media attention, Auda did not dismiss the possibility that the regime might resort to repressive measures to deal with ElBaradei.
“I was asked if I thought ElBaradei enjoyed any kind of immunity,” Auda told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “My answer was that he does not. He doesn’t have judicial, international or moral immunity.”
“I'm surprised because, two weeks ago, he called for peaceful protests. Only one week later, he called for an 'insurrection.' This is strange conduct,” Auda said, suggesting that any kind of "insurrection" would naturally be met with a security response.
Abdel Moneim Said, also a member of the NDP's Policies Secretariat, wrote an analysis of ElBaradei’s appeals for political change in Al-Ahram's 27 February edition, insinuating that the ex-IAEA chief suffered from a lack of an informed vision. Said pointed to certain statements made by ElBaradei, noting that they did not reflect the kind of change widely sought after by much of the public.
For example, noted Said, ElBaradei has endorsed the continuation of government subsidies on bread while saying that fuel subsidies need to be revisited.
“This is the same answer that Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif would have given,” Said wrote. He went on to opine that a true reassessment of economic policies in general--and subsidy policies in particular--was long overdue, and should be informed by the experiences of countries like Turkey, Malaysia, Vietnam and others.
Said’s comments have been interpreted as a call from within the establishment for a bona fide movement for change in response to the hype associated with ElBaradei.
“Said is suggesting a call for a counter-camp; that change should not be monopolized by ElBaradei,” said Bahgat Korany, political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “It’s a call to work on building roads towards true societal and economic change as opposed to phony political maneuvering.”
But this does not mean that the establishment has necessarily agreed on such a strategy. “My guess is that the upper echelons of the regime are divided, with some wanting to brush aside what’s happening and others seeing it as a real problem,” said Korany. “The younger generation within the regime is inclined towards fielding a counter-response. This will increase tensions because the regime's old guard isn't favorable towards such modifications. ”
The notion of conflict between young and old wings of the NDP has come to the fore since the NDP’s Policies Secretariat was established in 2002. The secretariat--stocked largely with middle-aged businessmen--has since become an engine of institutionalization and reform within the party.
A counter reaction by the establishment, according to Korany, should touch on the amendment of articles 76, 77 and 88 of the Egyptian Constitution, which govern to the electoral process and remain the source of considerable controversy. This controversy pertains to the lack of proper electoral oversight and the absence of genuine competition between candidates.
Auda, however, believes that such constitutional modifications are unlikely for the time being. “The political system in Egypt is cumulative," he said. "In order to think of the presidency, you must first think of parliament. ElBaradei is starting early, way too early.”
Auda also believes that it is still too early to question whether Gamal Mubarak, son of President Hosni Mubarak, plans to run for the presidency. The younger Mubarak has headed the Policies Secretariat since its establishment, and many believe he is being groomed to succeed his aging father. Precisely when and how, however, remain uncertain.
Nevertheless, the notion has prompted opposition figures to form a popular "Campaign against Presidential Inheritance." Most of those involved in the campaign have now pledged their support for ElBaradei.
“The appearance of ElBaradei has served to erode some of Gamal's assets, except on the issue of age," said Korany. "This will likely prompt the senior Mubarak to take the decision to run in the next presidential election.”
Gamal has been hailed for being a civilian member of the establishment, which has been run since the 1950s largely by military men. He has also been praised for enjoying a certain degree of international recognition. Both of these qualities, however, can also be attributed to ElBaradei.
“If Gamal Mubarak is nominated for the presidency, it will be through the institutional party system," said Auda, author of the younger Mubarak's official biography. "So we can’t really talk about this before upcoming parliamentary elections.”
Egypt's parliamentary elections are scheduled for late 2010, to be followed one year later by presidential elections.
The NDP's presidential nominee, however, may have already been decided. Addressing parliament in 2007, President Mubarak pledged to "continue with you on the path to the future, bearing its responsibility and burdens, as long as my heart beats and I draw breath."
The question for many now, therefore, is whether ElBaradei’s initiative--and a possible counter-initiative on the part of the regime--will bring about a process of real political change, or merely result in continued struggles for power and consolidation.