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Middle east

ElBaradei's campaign for free elections and reform gathers pace

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-04-01

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear chief, has begun gathering support for his newly formed National Association for Change, which seeks free elections and reform of the Egyptian constitution.

AFP - Egypt's most high-profile dissident, former UN nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei, has taken his reformist campaign to the street with a whirlwind of encounters with Muslim worshippers, Christian activists and film stars.

ElBaradei also used his Internet page on the social networking group Facebook to urge Egyptians to join his newly formed National Association for Change, which seeks constitutional amendments and free elections.

"What I am asking of you is to join the association, if you agree with its principles, as soon as possible," said the 67-year-old.

In a jam-packed schedule, the former diplomat attended Friday prayers in a historic Cairo mosque and met with Coptic activists and celebrities in events that were highly publicised.

"We are building a consensus for change," said George Ishak, a spokesman for the association.

"We will talk to whoever it takes, lawyers, doctors, students, farmers, old, young, anyone."

The former nuclear watchdog chief's critics have accused him of being out of touch after decades spent outside his native Egypt, while others tout him as a man who could awaken the country from a political slumber.

Last month, ElBaradei, who has said he would be willing to run for president in 2011, returned from Vienna, where he headed the International Atomic Energy Agency until the end of 2009, to a rapturous welcome from supporters.

He spent several days meeting activists at his home, before leaving Egypt again. Some had feared the ElBaradei effect would be fleeting, but the street campaign has carried on.

"What he is doing is very intelligent. He is trying to lobby and put political pressure on the regime through public support," said Amr Choubaki, a political analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

He said ElBaradei's strength lies in having avoided overtly political slogans or radical statements -- something which would alienate those not politically active.

"In Egypt, we have been used to political activity meaning 100 people standing on a pavement chanting insults at the president," Choubaki said.

ElBaradei's Facebook group has tens of thousands of members, and the challenge now is to get those people on the ground.

"That is what he is doing. He is creating a solid base. This is very important" said Ahmed Zahran, a political activist.

But ElBaradei faces very real obstacles if he wants to run for president next year, including stiff curbs on presidential candidacies from outside President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP).

Mubarak, in power since 1981, has not said if he plans to run for a fifth six-year term in the next presidential election.

The 81-year-old leader has just returned from Germany where he underwent surgery to have his gall bladder and a growth on the small intestine removed, prompting frenzied speculation as to what shape the post-Mubarak era will take.

"If (ElBaradei) decides to run according to the constitution, he is more than welcome. The only thing he has to do is to join a political party," Ali El-Dean Hillal, NDP stalwart and a former youth minister, told AFP.

ElBaradei has vehemently rejected the option, citing the lack of neutrality of the national committee that oversees political parties. It is currently headed by NDP secretary general Safwat al-Sherif.

"It is entirely up to Mr ElBaradei to decide the modality of his participation in Egyptian political life," Hillal said.

"Until now he didn't say if he will run, he did not issue a platform," he said, conceding however that an ElBaradei candidacy would "definitely make the presidential competition more lively and more competitive."

As an independent candidate, ElBaradei would need the backing of at least 250 elected officials including from the upper and lower houses of parliament and municipal councils -- all bodies dominated by Mubarak's NDP.

"He is certainly facing practical challenges, but he is emerging from all this as a moral force," Choubaki said.

Zahran agrees: "He has laid the groundwork for change. The question is will people capitalise on that investment?"

Date created : 2010-04-01

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