Dear Mr. President

Those who didn't want Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the IAEA just may get him as president of Egypt

The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, is not exactly Israel's darling. When he was up for for reelection to a third term, in 1995, Israel made a sizable effort to convince the United States that he was "too soft" on Iran's nuclear program, and that someone tougher should be found. The George W. Bush administration, which didn't need Israel to persuade it, squirmed a bit but finally agreed to the appointment. Several months later ElBaradei was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, but not the trust of Israel or the United States.

This month ElBaradei will complete his term, to be replaced by Yukiya Amano, Japan's ambassador to the IAEA. But the Egyptian diplomat and nuclear expert does not intend be idle now, after 12 years of intensive activity that included examination of the nuclear programs of Libya, North Korea, Iran and Iraq. At 67 he does not even reject out of hand the idea of a political career in Egypt. Not just any career - he is prepared to seriously consider a presidential bid - "on condition it is ensured that the elections will be free, clean and transparent," as he stipulated in an interview to CNN in Arabic last week.

The Egyptian presidential election is scheduled to be held only in 2011, but the political cauldron there is already seething. Two weeks ago it was reported here that journalist and pundit Mohamed Hassanein Heikal has proposed establishing a council of experts to lay the foundations for a democratic Egypt "that will give hope instead of despair to the next generation." He expressed strong opposition to the candidacy of President Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal and suggested that ElBaradei would be a worthy member of this important council.

The opposition Wafd Party did not let Haikel's idea sink into oblivion as just another utterance by a political historian. It has called upon ElBaradei to return to Egypt and declare his candidacy on behalf of the Wafd. ElBaradei has not decided whether to run as an opposition candidate or as an independent, nor is it entirely clear what he means by "free and clean" elections. Is he saying that previous Egyptian elections were not "free and clean"? In any case there is no need to wait for an explanation in order to understand the extent of ElBaradei's criticism of the Egyptian regime.

The stone ElBaradei has thrown into the pond has already created vigorous ripples within Egypt's political community. The Muslim Brotherhood's religious bloc has announced that it will not support him, and some organizations on the left believe he does not have the experience in dealing with government and with the huge political and economic problems plaguing the country.

However, the leaders of the Kifaya ("enough") movement, which unites most of the opponents to passing the presidency down to Gamal Mubarak, have decided to examine giving their support to ElBaradei if he announces his candidacy.

So far there has been no response from the ruling party, which continues to promote Gamal Mubarak as a sole candidate. For now it seems it has nothing to fear. In order for ElBaradei to be a presidential candidate he must be a member for at least one year of a legal political party that has been active for at least five years. Alternatively he could run as an independent, which would require signatures from 250 elected officials, including at least 65 from the People's Assembly, the lower house of parliament, and at least 25 from the Shura Council, the upper house. The ruling party controls both these institutions with a firm hand and it is doubtful he could gather the required signatures. Moreover, ElBaradei will have to test the support of the Egyptian army, The top brass apparently favor intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to succeed Mubarak. For now, we can amuse ourselves with the idea that those who opposed ElBaradei as head of the IAEA may get him as president of Egypt.

Weapon secrets

In the story of the Iranian ship carrying arms apparently intended for Hezbollah, Egypt's part in the capture has disappeared. The media could only report that "as usual" Egypt turned a blind eye, and that "apparently" this was not the first time Egypt has allowed weapons shipments to pass through its territory. This of course is the same Egypt that arrested a Hezbollah cell a few months ago and disclosed the arms it intended to send into Gaza, the same Egypt that is also taking action against people who are smuggling weapons from Sudan. But Egypt has always been an easy target for criticism.

Here's something to think about. The Iranian ship docked at Egypt's Port of Damietta, where the containers containing weapons were unloaded and reloaded onto the Francop, a German ship with a Cypriot crew flying the Antiguan flag.

Did Israel inform Egypt of the ship's imminent arrival at Damietta? Did it warn Cairo that a ship with deadly cargo was about to leave its territory, and ask that Egypt apprehend it? The short answer is "No way." After all, how could the Egyptians be trusted to stop the ship or unload its cargo and arrest its crew? They might even tell the captain that his ship is under Israeli surveillance.

But how could Israel, which craved the booty of the seized arms and the media victory, have permitted a situation in which Egypt, even if by chance, might decide to inspect the ship and unload its cargo? Could Israel have risked having some of the cargo being opened in Egypt, only to be smuggled into Gaza? In short, it is difficult to imagine that Israel genuinely left things to chance and did not share the secret with Egypt.