When Mohamed ElBaradei's flight touched down at Cairo International Airport on Feb. 19, he was greeted by hundreds of supporters waving homemade ELBARADEI FOR PRESIDENT banners. After more than 20 years abroad, the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief (and Nobel Peace laureate) had returned home to challenge President Hosni Mubarak's repressive 29-year rule. Although ElBaradei still hasn't even announced his candidacy, the internationally respected and domestically lauded reformer has been openly criticizing the Mubarak regime for months—first in Vienna, where he was based, and now from Egypt. ElBaradei's potential candidacy has galvanized the domestic opposition as the country prepares for presidential elections in September 2011.
But while the kindly, honest technocrat seems like a self-evidently good choice for leader, his candidacy would spell disaster for an opposition movement already enfeebled by failure. The "unity" platform he preaches has already elicited bickering—a dangerous test drive for the real thing. If he really makes a run, not only will he lose, but he would fracture the fragile coalition of Mubarak's opponents, leaving them weaker and more demoralized than ever. That, in turn, would only empower the despotic president. If ElBaradei wants what's good for the opposition, he should get out of the way.
First of all, his candidacy would shatter the coalition binding Mubarak's opponents. ElBaradei's right to enter the political fray is supported by this coalition—political parties, youth groups, and members of Egypt's most powerful opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. But if he actually runs, the alliance can't last. "The opposition itself is extremely divided and ElBaradei is a symbol primarily because he's not beholden to any of them … The moment he [moves beyond the common ground of political reform], he starts alienating specific opposition groups," says Nathan Brown, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He can't win the support of both secular reformists and Islamists (he wouldn't be the first to try and fail). Getting on the ballot will require announcing a campaign platform—like where he stands on the role of religion in the Egyptian state—that will divide groups that disagree with each other on fundamental principles.
Even if ElBaradei could keep the broader movement together, he'd splinter the most important part of it—the Muslim Brotherhood. Although officially outlawed, Brotherhood candidates running as independents swept the 2005 parliamentary election, winning 20 percent of seats. Today, the Islamist group is suffering from an internal divide that threatens their future political participation. The older conservative leaders want the younger politically motivated members to stay out of politics and focus instead on the core mission of social work. But those young brothers will likely come out in support of ElBaradei anyway, ruining party cohesion and deepening the group's generational divide. "They are already fragmented," says Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian political blogger. "ElBaradei would fragment them even more." That's exactly the outcome Mubarak wants.
ElBaradei would also shake the secular groups. Ayman Nour, a reform candidate who spent more than three years in jail on bogus charges, came in a distant second in the 2005 sham presidential election. He announced his candidacy with the Al Ghad Party for this cycle last week, but, he acknowledges, ElBaradei would probably win his base. "The supporters for change in Egypt are pretty much the same people," Nour says. Splitting an already small constituency is no way to acquire political power.
Elsewhere among the secularists, egos are already colliding. A Facebook group called ElBaradei for President has more than 100,000 members, but Ahmed Salah, a leading member of Sixth of April youth—one of the country's largest anti-regime protest groups and the one responsible for rounding up supporters at ElBaradei's homecoming demonstration—accuses the Facebook group's founder of sidelining the organization and trying to stop them from meeting with ElBaradei (presumably as a gambit for influence and credit).
Finally, ElBaradei may be causing all this angst for nothing, because it's not even clear he can run. Constitutional amendments passed in 2005 place strict limits on potential presidential competition. Independent candidates are required to provide 250 supporting signatures from a combination of elected officials in national and local government—offices controlled by Mubarak's allies. (They wouldn't help put someone on the ballot who could pose a legitimate threat to the president.) Otherwise, candidates must be nominated by a political party where they've held a leadership position for at least one year. ElBaradei himself doesn't even seem gung-ho. He has announced his own preconditions to running, including elections with international monitors—something Mubarak has never allowed before.
Although the wave of support for ElBaradei shows that Egyptians hunger for political change, he won't be able to channel idealistic fervor at the poll. It's demoralizing enough for a national hero to damage an already weak opposition; it's worse when he inhibits any real chances for political change and strengthens the president he claims to oppose. Everyone knows the names of a few great men who overthrew an authoritarian regime on a wave of popular support—Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, Lee Kwan Yew. But many more equally worthy ones have failed, instead helping those regimes to thrive; history quickly buries their names. ElBaradei shouldn't make himself one of them.