The U.S. has always faced a difficult challenge in its policy towards the Mubarak regime in Egypt. One objective has been to promote democracy, but U.S. officials have always been aware that such a process poses the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power. Now, Mohamed El-Baradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency and staunch opponent of the U.S., is considering a run for president of Egypt. If he does so, the U.S. will be in the very difficult predicament of having to decide whether to support a coalition that includes liberal reformers as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, or to stick with Mubarak to preserve a much-needed ally in the region.
El-Baradei is already campaigning for democracy in Egypt, but says he won’t run for president unless changes are made to allow a fair campaign to take place. As of right now, El-Baradei is not the leader of a political party and independents cannot run for the presidency without the support of 250 members of the parliament. This makes an independent candidacy impossible because Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party dominates the parliament.
El-Baradei can alternatively become the leader of a party, but the party must be at least five years old, hold at least three percent of the seats in parliament, and he must be the leader for at least one year. If El-Baradei forms a partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood, their status as an illegal party could be used by the Egyptian government to ban his candidacy. It is reasonable of El-Baradei to demand changes before running, although he may run anyway in an attempt to motivate the opposition and force the government to cave to their demands.
El-Baradei speaks like a classic advocate of the democracy promotion that formed the centerpiece of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, even though he was an opponent of the war in Iraq and vigorously defended Iran. “We do not have democracy [in Egypt]. And I believe that only by empowering people will we have economic and social development and be able to join the rest of the world,” he says.
When discussing the Muslim Brotherhood, he says that “authoritarian” government in Egypt encourages their growth by depriving the population of freedom. “The more we deny people their basic rights, the more we encourage extremism,” El-Baradei said.
El-Baradei’s status as an advocate of democratic reform makes it tempting for the U.S. to embrace him, but significant risks lie with him. He is an opponent of Israel and American foreign policy, and if he comes to power, it will empower the Muslim Brotherhood organization that will be a part of any coalition he puts together.
El-Baradei worked his hardest to stop the war in Iraq and paint Saddam Hussein’s regime as innocent against charges of illegal WMD activity. He has condemned Israel, particularly for its 2007 bombing of a Syrian nuclear site and he has defended the “Palestinian resistance,” saying that “the Israeli occupation only understands violence.” He has been accused of covering up Iran’s nuclear transgressions, with France and Israel slamming him for not including information about the regime’s work on nuclear warheads and other weapons-related research in his reports.
One Kuwaiti newspaper reports that a top Iranian official has given $7 million to someone close to El-Baradei in Hungary to help fund his campaign. According to the report, the Iranians offered additional assistance including the providing of information that can be used against Mubarak. This could just be an attempt by the Arab governments to slander El-Baradei, but his past friendliness towards the Iranian government means this story cannot be immediately dismissed.
Muslim Brotherhood members have met with El-Baradei as he considers a presidential run, with the organization’s secretary-general announcing that they’d ally with him in a coalition if he was willing to join forces. El-Baradei openly states that his bloc would include the Brotherhood because of their popularity. The other opposition parties are divided on whether they agree or disagree with the inclusion of the Brotherhood.
Dr. Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, told FrontPage that El-Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood are essentially one if a campaign begins.
“His whole campaign is run by the Muslim Brotherhood to such an extent that he becomes their vehicle,” he told FrontPage. Dr. Rubin said that El-Baradei “has no chance” of victory, though.
If El-Baradei came to power, Egypt would move much closer to Iran, and would stop being as cooperative in fighting Hamas. The Muslim Brotherhood would have more influence in government, potentially restricting his ability to institute meaningful reform. And it would impose pressure to institute Sharia. In terms of policy towards Israel, Egypt would follow in Turkey’s footsteps.
Dr. Michael Widlanski of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs agreed with this analysis when contacted by FrontPage. “If he’s soft on a nuclear Iran, how much help will he be against the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas or Hezbollah?” he asked.
Other experts disagree with the alarm over a potential El-Baradei candidacy. Samer Shehata writes in Foreign Policy that El-Baradei’s National Coalition for Change consists of leaders “who represent a broad spectrum of political views,” including liberal reformers like Ayman Nour. He says it is “deeply misleading” to say that El-Baradei is “joining forces with” the Brotherhood, because he is reaching out to all the opposition leaders and is no more tied to them than anyone else.
Jamie Fly, the Executive-Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, has called on the Obama Administration to support El-Baradei, saying his opposition to the U.S. gives him credibility in the Arab world and that his candidacy would be “the best chance for democratic reform in Egypt we may see for some time.”
“El Baradei is contemplating a run for the Presidency of Egypt, not of the United States,” Fly wrote. He says those calling on the U.S. to side with the Mubarak regime are “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
El-Baradei may not be supportive of the Brotherhood’s political agenda, as he indirectly criticized them when asked about their popularity and he responded by linking the lack of freedom in Egypt to the growth in support for extremism. He is indeed including liberal democrats in his coalition. Tawfik Hamid, a former member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and current chairman of the Potomac Institute’s Chair for the Study of Islamic Radicalism, told FrontPage that the Brotherhood would inevitably use the coalition’s victory to institute Sharia Law.
Hamid described the Brotherhood as “without a doubt” the most powerful part of the coalition, and that their power in parliament would prevent significant reform and force whoever was President to make Egypt more hostile to the West. “I see El-Baradei as a good person, but I do not believe he is fit to deal with radical Islam,” Hamid said.
Egypt has been experiencing a growing demand for reform and the potential for turmoil if the Mubarak regime does not allow a fair election in 2011 cannot be underestimated. Between 2004 and 2008, there were over 1,900 protests and strikes in the country by 1.7 million workers. There is a lot of discontent that El-Baradei and his coalition can tap into to pressure the government.
The U.S. will be in a difficult spot if it does not side with El-Baradei’s National Coalition for Change and call for a free and fair presidential contest. Many pro-democracy activists will become disenchanted with the U.S., but at the same time, should El-Baradei successfully come to power, the U.S. will lose a critical ally in containing Iran and Hamas. It is likely that the rest of the Arab world will see Iran as the inevitable dominant power and rush to join its bloc. For the sworn enemies of the West, El-Baradei’s fight for “democracy” may be just what they need.