Five years ago today, when Hosni Mubarak made his big announcement about direct, multicandidate presidential elections, he couldn’t have dreamed that five years down the line, he’d face a most unexpected challenger. Someone who is everything that Mubarak and his son aren’t: internationally respected, intellectually nimble, and domestically popular.
Who knows whether ElBaradei has a real chance at the presidency? What’s clear is that his return to Egypt has completely flummoxed Mubarak and his retinue. Up to now, they’ve dealt handily with all the domestic politicians and pressure groups who’ve opposed their rule, ridiculing some, imprisoning others, co-opting still others, and simply exhausting whoever’s left. Along comes ElBaradei, with an energetic mien and an organized plan. His international standing ensure that he can’t be repressed or ridiculed. He’s made it crystal clear that he won’t be co-opted. And the incredible surge of popular enthusiasm that’s enveloped him makes it unlikely that he’ll get tired and retreat.
Mubarak’s henchmen have so far done a laughable job of dealing with this unwelcome surprise. His arrival on the scene a full year and a half before presidential elections has caught them off guard; they hadn’t yet devised their strategy for 2011 elections. So they’ve been scrambling to respond, dispatching pathetic regime hacks to sling cheap shots at al ElBaradei that only make him more popular. See the priceless interview tactics of the revolting Amr Adeeb, who trips over himself to please his master Zakariyya Azmi. Haga zibala.
At this point, it’s hard to see how ElBaradei can even run in the elections, much less have a real chance at winning. But I think he’s doing more than launching a symbolic campaign. He’s raising the costs of electoral engineering for the Mubarak regime, making 2010 and 2011 the toughest polls yet in Mubarak’s tenure. What’s more, ElBaradei’s entry comes at a time when the regime is at its weakest. Mubarak is fast fading, his son is flailing, the bureaucracy is riven with unbelievable corruption and civil servant protests, and all social classes are literally fed up and can’t stand the Mubaraks anymore. None of this means that ElBaradei is going to displace the system, but it does mean that the regime will have to work harder than it ever has to weather the electoral cycle.
Elections have always been nuisances for Mubarak, now they’re turning into nightmares. Why? First because ElBaradei shows up the ridiculous rules governing the political game. The laughingstock Political Parties Committee, the crazy restrictions of Article 76 on presidential candidacy, the elimination of judicial supervision over elections, and the nefarious provisions littering the law governing political participation. The Egyptian opposition has been crying foul over these things for decades and decades, but the criticism sounds a lot more credible when it comes from someone with impeccable international standing.
Second, ElBaradei’s entry certifies the beleaguered Egyptian opposition. I’m talking about the real opposition, not the fake opposition parties in Wust al-Balad and Dokki licensed by the regime. Some so-called analysts’ favorite pastime is to sit around announcing the demise of Kifaya, the Ikhwan, al-Ghad, the various reform groups among the professions, civil society associations, etc. ElBaradei’s joining of their ranks and endorsement of their decades long demands for constitutional reform, fair elections, and redistributive policies suddenly raises their profile and makes it that much harder for the regime to dismiss them as fanatics, lunatics, foreign agents, loudmouth nationalist-populists, or what have you.
Perhaps the scariest thing for Mubarak, wife, and son is that ElBaradei’s social democratic centrism, liberalism, and personal air of gravitas is rapidly forming him a constituency inside and outside Egypt. Like any dictator, the purpose of Mubarak’s existence is to snuff out the bottom-up formation of constituencies around rival groups or individuals. So far, Mubarak has succeeded in blocking or containing the growth of constituencies around challengers. Because elections are the time when constituency-building happens, they’ve always constituted an annoying but ultimately manageable nuisance for him. When the Ikhwan’s constituency-building threatened the parliamentary majority of Mubarak’s party in 2005, state violence was at the ready to strike at both voters and candidates. When Ayman Nour’s unexpected constituency-building in 2005 threatened to embarrass Mubarak, he mobilized his media and legal machine to smear Nour and put him safely behind bars. These tried and true tactics won’t work with ElBaradei. I’m going to enjoy sitting back and watching how the Mubaraks deal with this wildcard.