Commentary Magazine


The Mubarak Mirage and the ElBaradei Conundrum

I note considerable chatter among conservatives about the dangers of Muhammad ElBaradei. See, e.g., this post at Fox News by Anne Bayefesky. As my Wall Street Journal op-ed today should have indicated, I am hardly one to romanticize ElBaradei or to underestimate the difficulties of dealing with him. But what do his critics propose we do anyway?

Encourage Mubarak to kill lots of demonstrators to stay in power? Because at this point, that is probably what it would take for Mubarak to remain as president. Yet it is not even clear at this juncture that he could employ violence to save himself, given the fact that the Egyptian army has announced it will not fire on the demonstrators.

So what should the U.S. do? Demand that ElBaradei step down as the leader of the protest movement? Any such demand would be laughed off by the demonstrators, who are certainly not going to let their tune be called by Washington. Whom, at any rate, would we want to replace ElBaradei? There is not exactly a surfeit of well-respected liberal leaders, which is why ElBaradei was able to become the leader of the anti-Mubarak movement after having spent decades away from Egypt.

Perhaps we should demand that ElBaradei disassociate himself from the Muslim Brotherhood? Again, such a demand would be ignored, and probably rightly so. It is hard to see how any figure can claim to represent all the protesters without also speaking on behalf of the Brotherhood, which is the country’s largest and best-organized nongovernmental organization.

I am by no means trying to minimize the possible dangers ahead or to wish away the problems with ElBaradei. But the reality is that he has become the only realistic alternative to Mubarak, at least in the short-term. If he does the job right, he could preside over an interim government that would lift the state of emergency and allow the emergence of genuine political parties. Hopefully, we would see the emergence of popular leaders who would not be beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood. But for now, our options are severely limited.

As I’ve argued repeatedly, if we had wanted to avoid this dire situation, we should have been putting real pressure on Mubarak to reform in years past. But many of those who now decry ElBaradei also resisted attempts to force Mubarak to liberalize, because they were devoted to the mantra of “stability” above all. We are now seeing how deceptive the Mubarak mirage actually was.