ElBaradei shakes up election in Egypt

In Egypt, there is a saying that the Sphinx is more likely to move from its position than President Hosni Mubarak from his.

It certainly seemed that way on Oct. 21, when a top National Democratic Party official unambiguously stated that Mubarak would be the ruling party’s presidential nominee for an unprecedented sixth term in 2011. However, social, economic and political forces are at play that call this perceived stagnation into question and hint at possible changes in the not-too-distant future.

I am currently studying abroad in Cairo at Cairo University, one of the oldest and most respected universities in the Arab world that has educated generations of Egyptian leaders for years. Over the course of my studies at UK, I fell in love with the Middle East — its people, culture, languages, cuisine, sights, sounds and experiences — and its political, economic and social importance to the United States and the international community fascinated and intrigued me.

On Nov. 28, I will witness an Egyptian parliamentary election for the members of the lower house. This election will serve as a key test to anticipate next year’s highly discussed presidential election. I will also witness the beginning of the presidential campaign and the initial attempts to field a viable candidate against Mubarak, who has governed Egypt for nearly 30 years.

Egyptians have lived under the permanent application of emergency law since Sadat’s assassination, and constant perceived “threats to the state” have allowed Mubarak to govern Egypt as a democracy in name only. The U.S. has supported this regime’s stability and subsidized Mubarak’s police state, at the cost of nearly $2 billion per year of American taxpayer money, in return for generally favorable policies in the region and continued peace with Israel.

A grassroots online movement appears to be happening, especially among the youth in Egypt, to recruit Mohamed ElBaradei, the former inspector general of the International Atomic Energy Association, to run for the presidency amid accusations that Mubarak is readying his son, Gamal Mubarak, to inherit the presidency. ElBaradei has created a sense of excitement in a usually rather apathetic political atmosphere (for instance, my political system of Egypt professor has never voted in his life) by challenging Mubarak’s legitimacy. ElBaradei’s wave of youth support is coming from those who had previously shunned politics as a hopeless enterprise because the prospect for change has seemed non-existent, since Mubarak has been president literally their entire lives. Most of the Egyptians I encounter, from my fellow students and my professors to regular citizens I have met, express an intense sense of cynicism about political life in Egypt.

ElBaradei’s run for the presidency is improbable, however, for many reasons. Chief among them is that the current government is unlikely to recognize his newly organized political movement, the National Association for Change, as an official party. He would therefore be ineligible to stand as a candidate for president. Unless his party is recognized, ElBaradei is calling for a boycott of the upcoming election, calling it the most effective way to delegitimize the Mubarak government. One especially interesting variable is the position the Muslim Brotherhood will take; the organization remains illegal in Egypt, but its candidates, running as independents, made large gains in the 2005 parliamentary election.

Amid these circumstances, on Oct. 24, the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt handed down a ruling banning state police forces from Egypt’s universities, most notably the university I attend, Cairo University. Mubarak’s reaction to and enforcement of this will be critical to judge whether he and the Egyptian government will be willing to make advances in democracy and human rights over the coming months and years.

All the Egyptians I have met are kind, generous, graceful, religious people who love their children, who want to live an honest and fulfilling life, and who want what most people want everywhere in the world: peace, stability, freedom, governmental accountability, reliable infrastructure and good lives for themselves and their families. From my experiences in Egypt so far, from the conversations I have had and from my understanding of the dynamics of the political reality here, the government is exactly the opposite: a repressive force, stifling dialogue and progress.

Perhaps ElBaradei, acting as “an agent of change and an advocate for democracy,” as he recently described his role in Egypt, is exactly what this country needs. A self-generated movement for democracy, not imposed from the outside, harnessing the power of new communication technologies and Egypt’s large youth population to protest the government will eventually effect change. Then, perhaps, Egypt’s political Sphinx may find the sands shifting beneath him.