Mohamed ElBaradei and Egypt's Election

There's something puzzling about the way that Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and 2005 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has captured the imaginations of Egyptians chafing under President Hosni Mubarak's long rule. ElBaradei is not charismatic in the conventional sense. He tends to slump in his chair. His sentences are littered with "um"s and "you know"s. His bespectacled mien, shiny pate, and mustachioed lip evoke a kindly professor more than a crusader. The uncharitable might even say it is a measure of how desperate Egyptians are for change that they'd rally behind a former U.N. bureaucrat. But his milquetoast exterior masks a backbone of steel, and his tussles with the Bush administration over the extent of Iran's nuclear program have endowed him with a heroic reputation in the Middle East—which scares Egypt's regime.

Still, it's not clear that Mubarak needs to worry. Egypt's next presidential election is in September 2011. ElBaradei could run as the nominee of one of a handful of eligible opposition parties, but he has so far insisted that he will not participate unless thorough reforms are enacted. His list of conditions includes lifting the 30-year-old "emergency law," a sort of Patriot Act on steroids that allows the Egyptian government to arrest whomever it wants whenever it wants, and overhauling the Egyptian Constitution to guarantee honest elections, political freedoms, and limitations on the arbitrary exercise of executive power. In other words, ElBaradei won't run for president unless Egypt becomes a democracy in the next 16 months.

That's a tall order, and one can be forgiven for wondering whether ElBaradei has a plan for achieving it. He's got a fine Web site and a petition for which he's seeking a million signatures, but it's not clear how he's going to use these things to get the Mubarak regime to fold. He seems to believe that his petition, and some thundering—OK, serviceable—speeches will convince Egypt's rulers that pressures for reform can no longer be ignored. But in almost every election in Egypt since 1984, hundreds of thousands of votes have been cast against the ruling party with no effect. At a meeting with members of the Egyptian-American community in Boston last month, several young Egyptians implored El-Baradei to drop his preconditions and declare himself a candidate for president. He demurred, saying that to run under the current rules would legitimize the existing order. The regime, he said, might even allow him to win, say, 30 percent of the vote, in order to "prove" that the elections were fair. He understandably wants no part of such a sham.

But one can't help thinking that El-Baradei's principled stance represents a failure of imagination. The Filipino People Power movement that toppled Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 didn't happen because Corazon Aquino circulated a petition. It happened because she rolled up her sleeves and ran in a presidential election that she had every reason to believe would be fixed. And it was. But that rigged election served as a rallying cry for the opposition. As the scholar Lucan Way has pointed out, this story was repeated in almost all the "color revolutions" that swept Eastern Europe in the past decade: stolen elections united a fractious opposition, which toppled regimes that many had thought unshakable.

ElBaradei doesn't seem to get this. He not only declines to run but also threatens to rally a boycott of the vote if the Constitution isn't changed. It's hard to see this achieving anything. Most Egyptians don't bother to vote anyway. The last parliamentary elections, in 2005, drew around 25 percent turnout. If ElBaradei really wants to shake things up, he should rally Egyptians to go to the polls, not to abstain. In the 1960s the American political scholar E. E. Schattschneider noted that "the whole balance of power in the political system could be overturned" in a "quiet revolution" if only nonvoters went to the polls. Egypt is not America, but its best hope for change is for its citizens to storm the ballot box, and ElBaradei, with his reputation for courage and probity, might be just the man to lead them. During his Boston stay he reminisced—almost ruefully—about his dashed plans to retire to the south of France. Maybe that's why he won't run: he simply doesn't want it enough. That's too bad, because many Egyptians do.

Masoud is an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.