In an essay in Foreign Affairs last spring, I wrote about the obstacles impeding the emergence of a more liberal polity in Egypt. Although popular demands for political change have intensified in the past decade, the prospects for reform remain dim.

Over the years, foreign observers have argued that Egyptians favor political change by parsing the statements and actions of Egyptian activists of all stripes: the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, a small group of liberals, Nasserist holdovers, judges, bureaucrats, and labor protestors. But these observers have never been able to identify an actual pathway to political reform. In fact, Egypt’s political order has produced a system that seems impervious to change. The Egyptian regime of President Hosni Mubarak has proven adaptable to both internal and external pressures, not brittle and vulnerable to political challenges.

In the last six weeks, however, two new developments have emerged with the potential to affect Egypt’s political trajectory dramatically. In early March, Mubarak underwent an operation to remove either his gallbladder (according to the German hospital) or a benign tumor (as reported by the Egyptian press). He remained in intensive care for five days and continues to convalesce in Heidelberg University Hospital. Regardless of what ails him, Mubarak is now 81 years old, an age when people can die suddenly or never recover from seemingly routine illnesses or medical procedures. His extended stay in Germany has left many Egyptians wondering not only whether he will run for reelection in 2011 but who is actually running the country right now. Mubarak’s illness has served to only intensify the decade-long national discussion of who will be his ultimate successor. Although the mechanics of the transition appear to have been determined, there remains uncertainty about precisely who will follow Mubarak. Much of the publicly available evidence, however, suggests that it will be his second son, Gamal Mubarak.

Perhaps more important was the return to Egypt in February of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), after a 12-year absence. A lawyer and diplomat by training, ElBaradei has always played the role of the ultimate international bureaucrat -- a somewhat dour technocrat whose ties to his native country seemed purposely tenuous, to allow him to more freely contribute to improving global governance. This makes it somewhat surprising that ElBaradei has caused a political sensation since his plane touched down in Cairo. Foreign news outlets estimated that as many as one thousand Egyptians turned out to welcome him home at Cairo’s airport -- and to implore him to run for president in Egypt’s 2011 elections (a significant number given the government’s record of intimidation and violence).

ElBaradei did not douse his supporters’ hopes. He coyly told the Egyptian and foreign press that he would consider running if the Egyptian government enacted electoral and party reforms to ensure truly free and fair elections. At the same time, he formed a new political organization called the National Front for Change, which encompasses a broad swath of Egypt’s fractious but largely ineffective opposition movement. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood has signaled its support for the Front, although this is likely a tactical move, considering that the Islamists’ position in the political arena has recently become fragile under significant state pressure.

The creation of the Front, along with his tantalizing public statements, only amplified the ElBaradei phenomenon. By late February, Egyptian bloggers and journalists were reporting that one thousand people were joining ElBaradei’s Facebook page every ten minutes. This story is surely apocryphal, but it is nonetheless worth noting that ElBaradei currently has 82,069 Facebook supporters, compared to Gamal Mubarak’s 6,583. Media coverage has contributed to ElBaradei’s apparent popularity and to the anticipation over his next moves. In a sign of his evident prestige, street art celebrating ElBaradei has begun to appear in Cairo.

To be sure, the number of “friends” on a Facebook page is a crude metric of actual power or potential in Egypt’s highly circumscribed political environment. The institutions of the Egyptian state are geared toward maintaining the status quo, making it difficult for the opposition to organize. Moreover, aspiring reformers challenge the legitimacy of the state at their own peril. ElBaradei seems to understand this fact of Egyptian political life, which is why he will not commit to a presidential run. But he does appear to be the sort of political entrepreneur who can exploit the gap between regime rhetoric -- about economic growth, political reform, and social progress -- and empirical reality, which is dominated by political repression, poverty, substandard schools, and crumbling national infrastructure.

Of course, throughout Egypt’s modern history there have been others who have sought to play this role. Two of the most prominent are Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a human-rights and democracy activist, and Ayman Nour, an independent member of parliament, both of whom served time in prison as a result of their activism. The Egyptian state was easily able to neutralize Ibrahim and Nour with false allegations and farcical court dramas that many members of the Egyptian elite were willing to believe, either out of self-preservation or personal animus toward the defendants.

ElBaradei does not face the same vulnerability. What would seem to be his biggest weakness -- his long absence from Egypt while heading the IAEA -- is actually his greatest asset. His long tenure in Vienna means that the regime has nothing on him. It cannot taint him with charges of corruption, electoral malfeasance, financial chicanery, Islamist agitation, or of being a stooge of the United States. (In fact, ElBaradei clashed repeatedly with Washington while at the IAEA.) Considering his stature and the predatory nature of the Egyptian regime, ElBaradei’s file with Egypt’s domestic security services must be relatively thin.

Although initially surprised by the burst of interest surrounding ElBaradei, the Egyptian government has started to develop a strategy for containing his nascent political momentum. The first hint came from the Egyptian president, who told a German reporter in early March that his country “does not need a national hero.” Following suit, the country’s state-directed press has done what it can to discredit ElBaradei, suggesting that he provided the legal pretext for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is now seeking to inflame ethnic and sectarian differences in Egypt.

But it has become clear that although it continues to try to cut ElBaradei down to size, the regime recognizes the difficulties of completely marginalizing him. In fact, Mubarak and his advisers may let ElBaradei agitate, organize, and even run for president. An ElBaradei candidacy could actually help the regime in one important way: without being totally disingenuous, Mubarak and others in government could use the existence of a credible presidential contender as a demonstration of Egypt’s political reforms.

At the same time, an ElBaradei candidacy would put enormous strains on Egypt’s historically fractious opposition, with the resulting splits playing into Mubarak’s hands. Not to mention that Egypt’s Interior Ministry is well versed in the dark arts of vote rigging -- though outright manipulation would be a more difficult endeavor if ElBaradei indeed proves to be a widely compelling candidate. The regime in Cairo needs to look no further than Tehran’s June 2009 electoral debacle to understand the risks involved.

The ElBaradei phenomenon has led to inevitable questions about what Washington should do. Some observers, including the editorial page of The Washington Post, have argued that ElBaradei’s return has created an environment in which the United States can play a positive role in advancing the cause of reform if the Obama administration approaches the ElBaradei “boomlet” with “less caution.” Such statements suggest that the Egyptian public cannot help itself and has no agency, interests, or politics of its own, thereby requiring Washington to intervene. This is demonstrably untrue, making such a policy prescription unwise.

Further, Egypt’s close relationship with the United States has become a critical and negative factor in Egyptian politics. The opposition has used these ties to delegitimize the regime, while the government has engaged in its own displays of anti-Americanism to insulate itself from such charges. If ElBaradei actually has a reasonable chance of fostering political reform in Egypt, then U.S. policymakers would best serve his cause by not acting strongly. Somewhat paradoxically, ElBaradei’s chilly relationship with the United States as IAEA chief only advances U.S. interests now.

It is not surprising that Mubarak cannot accurately read Egyptian society’s political desires and hopes. He is elderly, isolated, and has been out of touch for some time. Contrary to his recent declaration, Egyptians are looking for a hero. And they no longer want the false heroics of a discredited line of military officers. Instead, many seem deeply attracted to a bespectacled lawyer who appears to have the courage of his convictions. The ElBaradei sensation may end up being little more than a minor diversion in the eventual ascension of Gamal Mubarak to his father’s post, but it has revealed more than ever how thoroughly hollow and illegitimate the regime and its myths have become.

For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next.

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  • STEVEN A. COOK is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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