Mohamed ElBaradei has been twittering up a storm. "Alex today a war zone," he tweeted from Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, on June 25, where thousands had taken to the streets amid throngs of black-clad riot police to protest the regime's systematic use of torture against its citizens. "Anger growing. Repression of pples rights will eventually backfire." The retired diplomat in rounded glasses with a slightly awkward gait may seem to have little in common with the angry protestors, but since his return home in February, after a 12-year tenure as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, ElBaradei, 67, has taken up the daunting role of challenging the 29-year-long rule of President Hosni Mubarak. In a country where open expressions of political dissent are rare, his face has popped up on posters and T-shirts worn by young Egyptians. He has notched up over 242,000 followers on Facebook, and over 9,000 have signed up for his Twitter feed. His growing base of supporters would like him to run for President next year. "Dr. ElBaradei is a global man who knows the meaning of democracy and has respect for the law," says Mahmoud Adel El Hetta, a student at Cairo University, whose first involvement in politics was the launch of a pro-ElBaradei Facebook group last year.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate's appeal is not hard to understand. Egyptians have lived under a repressive emergency law almost continuously since 1967; renewed in May, it bans public gatherings of more than three people and has been used to sanction the arbitrary arrest and detention of dissidents. The absence of political freedom has not been leavened with economic opportunity. Liberalization in recent years has led to growth, but the wealth has barely trickled down to the majority of Egyptians, 40% of whom live on less that $2 a day. So ElBaradei's calls for political reform, clean government and respect for human rights resonate with Egyptians.
Challenging the regime can be risky business: it has a record of dealing brutally with political rivals. ElBaradei says his sights are not focused on the presidential palace but on trying to reform the entire system. "My primary aim is not to be President; it's to get [Egypt] to catch up with the rest of the world in having a democracy," he told TIME recently. First, he wants the emergency law rescinded and the constitution amended to allow independents like himself to run. Without those changes, he reasons, the presidential race is a sham. The rules also make it hard for him to build a grass-roots organization. "I greet almost everybody at home because I can't hire offices," he says. "I cannot raise funds. There are a lot of these draconian laws that hardly allow me to work." As a result, he has not been able to make much headway in rural areas. "Running for President in Egypt is a nonstarter without supporters outside the capital," says Joshua Stacher, a Kent State political scientist and Egypt expert.
Even so, ElBaradei has launched what looks a lot like a presidential campaign. He has set up the National Coalition for Change, a broad alliance of politicians, activists, writers, actors and others, and chapters have mushroomed among expatriate Egyptian communities in several Gulf states, the U.S. and Britain. He has issued a seven-point manifesto for change, and his volunteers have fanned out into towns and villages across Egypt to collect 1 million signatures in support of constitutional reform; so far they have around 100,000.
The campaign seems to have rattled the regime. The state-sponsored press has repeatedly attacked ElBaradei's reputation, calling him, in turns, an outsider who lacks experience and credibility, an agent for a U.S. or Iranian agenda and a nonthreat with little more than a virtual following. "The ElBaradei phenomenon will only last a short time," says Abdullah Kamel, a member of the ruling party and the editor of a government newspaper. "He has no legitimate support, and he doesn't have an economic or social platform." Those who support ElBaradei have also come under unsubtle government pressure. Riot police have cracked down brutally on groups of pro-reform protesters in recent months, many of them claiming allegiance to ElBaradei.
Mubarak, 82, has not said whether he will run for a sixth term in 2011. But it is widely believed that he is preparing his son Gamal for succession. That prospect has energized the fractured opposition. On June 25, ElBaradei joined several opposition figures and scores of ordinary Egyptians on the streets of Alexandria to protest the alleged beating to death of a young businessman by plainclothes police. But not all those opposed to Mubarak automatically favor ElBaradei. Frustration with years of political stagnation and corruption have left most Egyptians suspicious of politics. And for many of the country's 80 million, ElBaradei is an unfamiliar figure.
And then there's the 800-lb. gorilla in the room. The U.S., Egypt's most important ally and source of $1.3 billion in annual military aid, has kept a studied distance from Egyptian politics, raising little objection to Mubarak's strict rule. But ElBaradei is dismissive of the role Washington will play in Egypt's ultimate political future. "You hear a lot that the Americans are going to decide the fate of the election here, or the presidency," he says. "My answer to that is that's an insult to the Egyptians."