An unlikely populist steps into key role

Former UN aide Mohamed ElBaradei Former UN aide Mohamed ElBaradei
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / February 1, 2011

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WASHINGTON — He had no speechwriter, no entourage, no fund-raising machine. But the bald, bespectacled former Egyptian diplomat stood in a Marriott conference room in Boston last April, urging an audience of Egyptian-Americans to join a new movement to bring democracy to their homeland.

“He was not very charismatic, and I remember thinking that this guy doesn’t have what it takes,’’ said one of those who attended, Tarek Masoud, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “But I was completely wrong.’’

Mohamed ElBaradei, a 68-year-old former head of the United Nations body that enforces a key nuclear arms treaty, is emerging as an unlikely pivotal figure in the bid to force President Hosni Mubarak to resign. On Sunday, in Cairo, as protesters gathered for the sixth day, ElBaradei, sporting his signature clunky glasses and gray mustache, yelled slogans through a bullhorn.

ElBaradei’s history of standing up to the United States on issues such as the Iraq war during his tenure at the UN agency earned him respect in Egypt and across the Middle East. “It may be that his track record of being independent of the United States, and willingness to be critical of the US, might help him now in Egypt,’’ said R. Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008.

The massive protests have taken the Egyptian government and the Obama administration by surprise. Yet for more than a year, a loose federation of intellectuals and opposition figures have been organizing a campaign to ease Mubarak’s grip on power.

About 18 months ago, some of them sought to draft ElBaradei as their candidate for president. Last weekend, key political parties — including the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition bloc — said they also backed him as a temporary leader during their attempts to negotiate an end to the Mubarak regime.

ElBaradei’s upbringing and career helped prepare him for a role at such a crucial moment. His father, a human rights lawyer who headed the Egyptian Bar Association, tangled with Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president. ElBaradei followed in his father’s footsteps, earning a law degree at the University of Cairo in 1962. Two years later, he joined the Egyptian diplomatic service, helping work out the legal dimensions of the Camp David Accords in 1979.

He also worked at the UN mission in New York, where he earned a doctorate in international law at New York University and developed a passion for the opera and the city’s basketball team, the Knicks.

In 1984, ElBaradei was hired as a senior staff member at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, and climbed up the ranks. Thirteen years later, he was appointed head of the agency — not because he was anyone’s first choice, but because he was a compromise candidate that everyone could agree on.

ElBaradei became a major figure on the international stage in the run-up to the US war against Iraq in 2003. He was widely applauded, but also criticized, for undermining the US case for war in Iraq by exposing a key document as a forgery. The document, which had been cited by US officials as part of their justification for war against Iraq, said Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain fuel for a nuclear weapon.

John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview that ElBaradei also undermined the US push for sanctions against Iran by removing statements in the atomic agency’s reports that he viewed as damaging to Iran.

“He was constantly trying to undercut our sanctions efforts with his own loose-cannon negotiations,’’ Bolton said in an interview, describing ElBaradei as “anti-American.’’

In 2005, ElBaradei, along with the UN’s atomic agency, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.’’

During his time at the helm of the UN agency, ElBaradei steered clear of public statements about politics in Egypt. But as soon as he retired in late 2009, he began to speak out.

Around the same time, a group of Egyptians and Egyptian-Americans who called themselves the National Association for Change started an online petition demanding seven reforms, including allowing Egyptians overseas to vote, and lifting the emergency law that allows police to arrest political opponents.

The group also reached out to ElBaradei, hoping to persuade him to run as their leader.

“Egyptian-Americans were really on the forefront of this groundswell of the support that he got, because his work is much more well known in the US than in Egypt,’’ said Ashraf Hegazy, executive director of the Dubai Initiative, a joint venture between the Dubai School of Government and the Kennedy School supporting public policy research in the Middle East.

Hegazy said ElBaradei is the ideal transitional figure to unite Egyptians because he does not lead his own political party.

After decades of living abroad, ElBaradei returned to Egypt last February and held a meeting of opposition leaders at his home, trying to unify them behind a common cause.

Two months later, he traveled to Boston, where he spoke at the Kennedy School and at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

“He didn’t have any particular desire to go back and become the Egyptian head of state,’’ said Michael Glennon, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School, who invited ElBaradei. “But he did think that he could nudge the system towards reform.’’

On Sunday, the same day ElBaradei addressed the masses in Cairo, he told ABC’s “This Week’’ that Mubarak “has to go immediately.’’

“We have to have a government of national salvation, . . . prepare for a free and fair election, a new constitution, and then move on toward a democracy,’’ ElBaradei said.

Farah Stockman can be reached at