Is There an ElBaradei Solution?

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Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

Egyptian prodemocracy leader Mohamed ElBaradei, right, is greeted by a young supporter before Friday prayers in Cairo on Friday, Jan. 28, 2011. He was later prevented from leaving the mosque and eventually detained by authorities

Updated: Jan. 28, 2011

For a while, Mohamed ElBaradei was known as the "change maker" among Egyptian activists and reformers. The recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership of the International Atomic Energy Agency, ElBaradei flew into Cairo International Airport almost exactly a year ago to a crowd of hundreds exuberantly chanting his name. On Thursday, Jan. 27, the former United Nations nuclear watchdog flew to the Egyptian capital once more, this time to a much smaller and different crowd: journalists with questions, rather than cheering supporters. He also was returning to a country that had started marching on its own toward change — without him. "I have come to participate with the Egyptian people," he told the media gathered at the airport. "It is a critical time in the life of Egypt."

ElBaradei was back in the country in time to join the nationwide demonstration scheduled to start on Friday after prayers for the fourth day of the most significant display of public dissent in Egypt in recent times. His entry added to the escalation of opposition involvement in protests. On Thursday, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest political group opposed to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, announced that they were throwing their lot in with the demonstrators. The top echelon had sat out the protests even though the rank and file had joined the marches. Both ElBaradei's and the Muslim Brotherhood's entries into the drama are expected to ramp up the turnout on Friday.

UPDATE Wire reports out of Cairo on Friday say ElBaradei was prevented from leaving a mosque to join the protests and that he has since been put under house arrest.

For days, Egyptians have clashed with police across the country, with hundreds arrested since the original "day of rage" on Jan. 25 organized by opposition activists. At least seven people have been killed. In the Egyptian port city of Suez, which has seen some of the fiercest battles this week, protesters allegedly firebombed a fire station, the firefighters escaping through the windows. Meanwhile, in the northern Sinai peninsula, near the volatile border with the Gaza Strip, hundreds of Bedouin clashed with police, with reports of gunfire. The Bedouin, who have a history of sometimes violent confrontations with the Egyptian government, were said to have fired two rocket-propelled grenades at a police station.

In the Egyptian capital, which is home to roughly a quarter of the country's population, Thursday saw a relative lull in activity as thousands of riot police and troop carriers were stationed along major roadways and in front of government buildings. Except for one small protest, the streets of Cairo were clear of the marchers. But many businesses shuttered in anticipation of Friday. "Look at how all the shops are closed," says Abu Samah, a Cairo resident. "Today there is nothing, but tomorrow is the big protest at al-Azhar after the prayer." Samah says he plans to attend. "There is no government here."

The question many Egyptians have is, What exactly is ElBaradei going to do? In fact, if he has returned to take the reins of a nascent Egyptian revolution, he may be a little late to the party. After a year of intermittent visits and a signature-gathering campaign for change that "fell on deaf ears," as ElBaradei put it, many of his early followers have grown weary of the reformist's commitment. "I think his presence is going to support the people, but I think the people need him to stay in Egypt," says best-selling Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany, who was one of ElBaradei's most prominent supporters last winter.

At the time of ElBaradei's return last year, Al Aswany and many others saw the former U.N. bureaucrat as Egypt's next great hope for democratic change. A group of activists and intellectuals had invited him to be the leader of a new movement for change, prompting his dramatic return to Cairo last year. Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist and outspoken critic of the regime, was key to bringing ElBaradei on board. Nafaa has since acknowledged that there wasn't much of a game plan. "I have to be honest — we didn't know what we were going to ask him to do. And he didn't know exactly what he was supposed to tell us," Nafaa says of their first meeting. "But we said that a dialogue would start, and we had to see what was next."

A year later, with a nation in the midst of a popular uprising, it is unclear if anything else on the leadership level has changed. ElBaradei has not signaled specifically what he intends to do or even if he will be the one to lead. "I'm still here hoping to continue to manage to process the change in an orderly way, in a peaceful way," he told reporters at the Cairo airport on Thursday. "I hope the regime stops violence, stops detaining people. We are still reaching out to the regime to work with them for the process of change." It had all the temperance of a veteran of U.N. diplomacy and bureaucracy — not the fire of a revolutionary.