ElBaradei in Boston: An urgently needed agenda for change

While Egyptians in the US have basically decided that Mohamed ElBaradei is the long-awaited messiah, the 67-year-old pro-reform activist’s visit to Boston this week was not without controversy.

On the eve of ElBaradei’s visit, strife emerged within different organizations of Egyptian-Americans that all decided to rally for him but differed on whether to incorporate stigmatized figures–such as Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim–in their activism.

During and after his talks to the Egyptian community, youth engaged in side discussions revealed that they were confident of ElBaradei’s ability to bring about change. Nonetheless, they truly wished that he would have presented a concrete agenda that goes beyond the simple, and abstract, slogan “democracy.”

Upon hearing the news of ElBaradei’s visit to the US where he was to deliver speeches at various academic institutions, two organizations competed to win a private meeting with him. The Coalition of Egyptian Organizations, a new entity that encompasses different Egyptian-American organizations across the political spectrum, and in which Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a leading figure, attempted to set up a meeting with ElBaradei but failed. Meanwhile, the Alliance of Egyptian Americans, which distances itself from the Coalition due to Ibrahim’s role in it, quickly won a meeting in a luxurious hotel with the potential presidential candidate. Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that neither organization enjoys serious political muscle, like lobbying leverage within Washington power circles.

Interestingly enough, many members of the Coalition decided to abandon Ibrahim and put on Alliance hats and go to the important meeting. They all took pictures with ElBaradei, treating him as though he were almost a de facto president of Egypt. To make things even worse for the stigmatized Ibrahim, ElBaradei refused to appear in the same room with him on a CNN TV show.

The meeting with the Alliance, which took place on 26 April, had a politically amateur agenda. Fourteen members of the organizations, mostly an older and middle-aged crowd, attended, offering their assistance to ElBaradei’s campaign. When they asked him about the role expected from them, ElBaradei was careful not to assign them any tasks pertaining to addressing the Obama administration about his candidacy. He only asked for simple technological and organizational support–much like the kind that helped drive Obama’s 2008 campaign–for the people working back home in Egypt. Accordingly, the Alliance offered to set up a YouTube channel.

Immediately after the end of this meeting, around 6:45pm EST, ElBaradei arrived to a packed hall in another nearby hotel to deliver an open talk to a larger crowd of Egyptian-Americans and Egyptians residing in the US. It was a different crowd of people from all professions and backgrounds and of various ages, but many in audience were young people. They were excited and hopeful to finally see this high-profile Nobel Prize laureate and potential bearer of change in person rather than on TV talk shows. The entire room held up their mobile phones and cameras to take pictures of him or record a few minutes of his seemingly historic talk.

Despite the factionalism and controversy, a new loose organization was born to support ElBaradei: Egyptian Association for Change-USA. Many of its youth, enthusiastic members who drove down from New York to Boston, were standing at a busy table outside the room in order to expand their membership base and spread awareness about ElBaradei’s calls for constitutional reform. Despite attempts to co-opt it, the Association is so far working independently from Ibrahim or other stigmatized Egyptians in the US. They are collecting signatures for a petition demanding voting rights for Egyptians living abroad.

ElBaradei spoke on various issues concerning Egypt’s predicaments ove the past fifty years. Poverty, education, health care, minorities’ and women’s rights, police state tactics, and much more were key components of his talk. He insisted that there were two possible avenues for Egypt to escape its economic and political problems: democracy and socialism.

ElBaradei said that fair elections should take place in order to ensure just representation of all segments of society, and the state should play a pivotal role in the economy as the case is in many European countries that adopt a social democratic system. Thus, he proposed a “third way” for Egypt–neither an idealistic communism nor an unfair market economy.

For the youth in the room, ElBaradei’s suggestions were not new. He has made these statements before in numerous media interviews. The youth were expecting more: a real, detailed agenda for change. In the question and answer session that followed the talk, the young activists were further disappointed when ElBaradei repeated the simple slogan of democracy without providing in-depth answers for their meticulous questions.

Some attendees were particularly frustrated with his statement about abolishing the quota system for peasants, workers, Copts, and women in the Egyptian parliament. He insisted that real democracy should bring about just representation for these groups without assigning specific seats to them. He also affirmed that the 50 percent quota for peasants and workers, for instance, is currently filled by the wrong people, including former army generals.

A young woman asked ElBaradei about reforming Egypt’s system to ensure real representation of these two groups, rather than depriving them altogether of one of a few holdovers from the Nasserist socialist period after neo-liberal reforms. ElBaradei’s response was less than satisfying. He did not go beyond the importance of democracy as the only definite guarantee for equal rights. Many youth in the room thought of this vision as too idealistic to suit Egypt at the moment.

Outside the hall and later at dinner tables, many educated young professionals voiced their strong desire to see ElBaradei form a comprehensive platform for his candidacy, of course only after declaring that he will actually run for the presidency. It is about time for him to do so. They are more than ready to rally with him to work towards this goal. In the eyes of many, especially non-American Egyptians who intend to return home soon, he still represents the epitome of hope and the rising, legitimate president of Egypt. They are ready to go as far they can to create such an urgently needed agenda for change.

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