From Watching Nukes to Watching Polls?

Rumblings about the regime will not be enough for Mohammed ElBaradei to challenge for Egypt's presidency.

When the newly released chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei landed in Cairo on Friday, the banners and slogans said it all: "El Baradei on behalf of the nation!" And: "Oh, ElBaradei, speak out - Egypt needs democracy!" Some said a crowd of 3,000 turned out to greet him, while others believed merely 1,000 people were there.

However, there were important public figures: the writer Alaa al Aswany,a founding member of the Kefaya opposition movement, the head of the bar association and representatives of the 6th of April Movement, which made history that month in 2008 by using Facebook to generate a strike. The Muslim Brotherhood did not send an official representative but some of its senior members were there of their own accord, and a special Facebook site was set up for the man who would like to create democracy in Egypt: "ElBaradei for president in 2011."

The man himself has not yet announced his intention of running for the office in next year's elections but has made clear the conditions he is demanding to participate in the race, most importantly that the Egyptian constitution be changed so every candidate can compete without restrictions.

At present, legal fetters make it doubtful any independent or opposition candidate will be able to hold his own. Constitutional amendments in 2005 and 2007 mainly saw to the needs of candidates from the ruling party, and if President Hosni Mubarak should decide not to run in next year's elections - there is no hint of this now - he and his party will do everything possible so his son, Gamal Mubarak, becomes the next president.

But the ruling party and the presidential family are feeling the pressure from the very appearance of ElBaradei in Cairo. The government newspaper Al Ahram made do with a four-line news item on his arrival, and only a low-level Foreign Ministry official was at the airport to receive him.

The government newspapers have sharpened their pens and are warning ElBaradei what to expect. Although Karam Jaber, an editor of Rose el-Youssef, heaped praise on ElBaradei's activities and character and pointed out that "competition between candidates brings out the best in people and demonstrates their talents and therefore needs to be encouraged," it also stated that "ElBaradei, as an international figure, succeeded mainly when he exploited his international status for his personal advantage, and not for Egypt's sake, and in that he resembles Boutrous Ghali and others." The paper added: "Egypt is responsible for granting ElBaradei his rights, and not the other way around. The number of people who came to welcome ElBaradei at the airport did not reach a million as happened when the national football team coach Hassan Shehata returned, nor was it 50,000, the number who met the winner of 'Star Academy' [the Arabic version of 'A Star is Born']." Moreover, Jaber states, anyone who demands constitutional changes to make it easier for him to be elected must first kindly announce he is running for the presidency. Amendments to the constitution a year before the elections mean the country "will get involved in a hell." And there are other grumbles voiced by government representatives.

On the other hand, there are numerous bloggers who support his candidacy and who are trying to drum up support for ElBaradei. Pro-government bloggers argue that he did nothing about the corruption in Egypt the whole time he worked abroad. "He wants us to present him with the presidency on a silver platter," wrote Talal Yihye Abu She'isha on the Web site of the newspaper Al-Masri Al-Youm and added: "Go slow when you criticize our President Mubarak, who is dear to the hearts of millions of Egyptians, including some of those who went to welcome ElBaradei."

More than barbs and warnings await ElBaradei, who was born in the Doki suburb of Cairo. He is well-known among Egypt's elite, but he is not a household name in the large periphery where most of Egyptians live. He is also not the only potential candidate with an eye on the high-ranking post. Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, is interested in the presidency, as is intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who is the most talked about front-runner at present - and Gamal Mubarak has not yet announced his intentions.

A diplomatic punch or two

The meeting last week in the Qatari capital of Doha on Islam and the United States generated a small diplomatic storm. While attending the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conferred with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - not for the alloted 20 minutes but for well over an hour, and when it was time for Clinton to meet with the Qatari ruler, and the American ambassador to Doha, Joseph LeBaron, tried to enter the room and get Clinton to leave, he ran into Erdogan's advisers, headed by foreign policy adviser Fuat Tanlay, who refused to let LeBaron into the room and insisted the meeting with Erdogan be allowed to continue. LeBaron attempted to get past him, saying that "the meeting with the Qatari ruler is more important." At that point Tanlay reportedly grabbed LeBaron by the neck and made it clear "he would not decide who is more important." LeBaron shoved Tanlay, and aides on both sides had to separate the two.

Incidentally, what prolonged the meeting between Clinton and Erdogan was differences of opinion about sanctions against Iran. Clinton was not successful in persuading the Turks to support them