Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei deserves a great deal of respect for his insistence on expressing his support for his fellow Egyptians who believe that Egypt deserves a better future. ElBaradei could have chosen to retire from politics after a successful international career outside of Egypt. Instead, he decided to use his international stature to throw a stone in the still pond of political change here.
ElBaradei was neither the first nor the last to stir things up. Other prominent figures have done the same through long and costly struggles, and the Egyptian political scene was not quiet when ElBaradei appeared last February. But his international stature added new momentum to ongoing efforts to achieve political change. What was required at this juncture was to join forces with other political movements to achieve a qualitative shift forward.
But several mistakes led to the loss of this momentum, and even negatively affected existing efforts.
The first mistake was underestimating the value of accumulated political experience in Egypt. ElBaradei failed to take stock of prior reform efforts, an indispensable component of any reform project.
If all activists start from scratch, they are likely to reinvent the wheel without learning from past mistakes.
This is what happened in the midst of the excitement about ElBaradei. His movement seemed to treat Egypt as a blank page, devoid of seasoned activists and rich lessons. Instead, it pointed to the failure of previous efforts as an excuse not to learn from the past.
In addition, ElBaradei’s movement ignored the nature of previous reform efforts, including the movement that really began to stir things up over the past few years, the Kefaya movement. Kefaya’s biggest achievement was to transcend ideological divisions. It drew together diverse political forces, including Islamists, Leftists, Nasserists, and Liberals and presented an alternative to the traditional National Democratic Party/Muslim Brotherhood dichotomy. Kefaya was the first seed for national accord, one that should have been preserved and nurtured. In addition, Kefaya crossed several red lines and kindled the spirit of protest, setting the stage for labor-driven protests that have rippled through several sectors in recent years.
ElBaradei’s movement should have built on Kefaya’s efforts. Instead, ElBaradei was neither concerned with national accord, nor with developing a broad vision for the minimum requirements of achieving that accord. In addition, ElBaradei did not ask those who rallied behind him to take up this issue.
The biggest problem that ElBaradei faced, however, was his inability to reach out to people. Students of political movements across the world know that it is impossible to connect with people without engaging in two important activities; reform leaders must reach out to people’s experiences rather than relying on their own experiences. These leaders must also convince people that they can protect their interests. ElBaradei did not reach out to people on the basis of their experiences and he conflated tactics with general strategy.
His insistence that all of his supporters sign the seven points of reform first and the fact that he treated those who did not sign as having no right to discuss political change reflects a narrow notion of such change. ElBaradei’s notion was based on change from above, rather than change on the basis of people’s experiences and concerns.
What complicates matters further is that ElBaradei contends that he cannot act unless people act first. This reverses the natural course of things and does away with the need for a reform leader. People first need to trust that ElBaradei will protect them and work toward achieving their goals.
ElBaradei underestimated the value of previous reform efforts, refused to take powerful stances with regards to vital political issues, and opted to wait for the public to act before the elite. These mistakes cost him the opportunity to spur political change in Egypt and diffused the momentum for reform rather than advancing it.