In Egypt, political opposition has reached a fever pitch as concerns surrounding the twilight of the Mubarak regime mount.
In early March, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak flew to Germany, where a team of surgeons removed his failing gall-bladder along with a benign growth. Three weeks later, the president was back on Egyptian soil to resume his recuperation in the coastal city of Sharm-el-Sheik. That the deeply insular leader would announce his poor health was sufficient cause for concern. But if his homecoming ended wild speculation surrounding the president's condition, Egyptians are now faced with the impending likelihood of life after Mubarak. And although Mubarak's surgery was a success, the health of his nation is now at stake.
Since narrowly escaping the 1980 assassination plot that claimed the life of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, Mubarak has obsessed over his grasp on power. He's defined himself as a firm and cautious leader who shows little tolerance for any threats to his rule, whether real or imagined. To preserve his authority, Mubarak has maintained the nation's Emergency Law in effect ever since Sadat's murder. The law provides for an extension of police powers and the legalization of censorship, while limiting political demonstrations, suspending constitutional rights and barring all political parties that lack the official approval of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP). Virtually all power is consolidated in the hands of the president and his appointees. However, Mubarak's obsession with political ascendance has come at the cost of economic progress, with the lines between political and military power blurred, civil institutions leveled, and the nation polarized.
Now, with October's parliamentary elections on the horizon, Mubarak has ramped up efforts by his security services to crack down on the opposition. Since the beginning of 2010, approximately 350 political dissidents and potential opponents have been detained on various charges, including several members of the Muslim Brotherhood's executive office. Although the Brotherhood has long been considered the chief threat to the NDP's monopoly on power, and was in fact born from the brunt of Mubarak's political wrath, a new opposition has begun to develop.
Last Tuesday, 91 activists were beaten and jailed for publicly demanding constitutional reform to ensure transparent elections, as well as the lifting of emergency laws that undermine Egypt's civil society. The protest was organized by the 6th of April movement allied to Mohammed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and, more recently, the leading voice in a mounting campaign for political change in Egypt.
Thanks to his diplomatic bona fides, ElBaradei has had little trouble garnering international attention since Mubarak's health scare left the world considering an Egypt in transition. With a presidential election scheduled for 2011, rumors are rampant that ElBaradei will challenge either Mubarak, if the latter's health allows, or Mubarak's son Gamal, who has been groomed -- albeit awkwardly and without public support -- for succession.
For his part, ElBaradei has played coy regarding his political ambitions, publicly stating that he is not currently interested in public office, but rather anxious to use his personal clout to reform his homeland's constitutional wasteland. In his own words, "Change will have to come from within [Egypt] . . . There is no one coming on a white horse that is going to do it for you."
In response, the state-controlled media has maligned ElBaradei as a traitor to the nation whose campaign for political reform is "tantamount to a constitutional coup." Following last Tuesday's protests, his supporters have been beaten, arrested and allegedly tortured, all in full view of a watching world.
ElBaradei maintains that he will not run for office unless a "constitutional revolution" allows for a free and fair election. This proviso has not stopped him from raising his political profile through a growing schedule of public appearances and statements to the international press. As his support has steadily grown, so too has the depth of his message. To his fellow Egyptians, he has assumed the mantle of political progressive. His central theme to the world, however, is cautionary -- namely that the West's generous support for oppressive and authoritarian Arab regimes in the fight against radical Islamism is at best counterproductive, and at worst, potentially ruinous.
However, ElBaradei will likely continue to play his political cards close to the vest. In a nation that's short on democratic experience, barring an implausible change in Mubarak's stance against political opposition, ElBaradei may have to content himself with the role of Egypt's Critic-in-Chief. That would not necessarily weaken his message.
In his words, "The West talks a lot about elections in Iran, for example, but at least there were elections. Yet where are the elections in the Arab world? If the West doesn't talk about that, then how can it have any credibility?"
On the eve of this year's parliamentary elections and the 2011 presidential vote, the time is fast approaching for the world to reconsider the shape and stature of Egyptian "democracy." For nearly three decades, Mubarak has maintained his regime by presenting his allies with a simple choice: an oppressive dictatorship that is willing to work with and on behalf of U.S. and regional interests, or the triumph of radical Islamists. Mohamed ElBaradei is neither a pharaoh nor a fanatic, making his warning all the more noteworthy: Egypt may not suffer another strongman, and the West might not be able to afford one.
Reid Smith has worked as a research associate specializing on U.S. policy in the Middle East for several think tanks, including the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He will join the University of Delaware's Department of Political Science and International Relations as a graduate associate and doctoral candidate in the fall.