After a week of political jockeying involving Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mahmud Mansour, the country’s military and a radical Islamist party that refused to accept Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minister, the former head of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency was finally appointed deputy president for foreign affairs on July 9. In a compromise, the prime ministership went to Hazem el-Beblawi, an economist and former finance minister.
With an interim government being put in place in Egypt, which has experienced several days of growing violence between the supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, and the army, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced an $8 billion package of grants and loans to help restart the badly damaged Egyptian economy, says the Reuters news agency.
The appointment of Beblawi was accepted by the Islamist Nour Party, the most conservative force in the current political mix and the party that blocked ElBaradei from becoming prime minister because of his secular outlook. ElBaradei, who won the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the International Atomic Energy Agency, returned to Egypt in 2012 from years abroad and became leader of the opposition liberal-left National Salvation Front.
On July 3, he announced that Egyptians had restarted their 2011 revolution, publicly aligning himself with the Egyptian Army and backing the overthrow of President Morsi two and a half years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the former president.
Then, in swiftly changing events, ElBaradei was designated interim prime minister on July 6 by the interim president, Mansour, but the appointment was soon thrown into serious doubt. On July 7, the Nour Party countered ElBaradei’s candidacy, saying he was too divisive for Egypt. The government now hopes to hold elections early in 2014 to choose a permanent administration.
ElBaradei’s support of Morsi’s ouster was bold though perhaps not an unexpected step for him. He is a scholar of international law as well as a weapons expert who has been a strong voice in support of a more liberal government in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak.
ElBaradei was initially considered a potential presidential candidate to challenge Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, but he withdrew from contention in the face of the power of Morsi’s following and the disunity of the opposition.
Leader of the Constitution Party, ElBaradei spent much of his life outside Egypt in diplomatic or UN service, and had at first been accused by many Egyptians of being out of touch with his own country when he returned to Cairo as protests against Mubarak’s military-backed regime began to grow, resulting in its collapse. Now, two and a half years later, ElBaradei was asking the army to step in and “protect the souls” of the Egyptian people.
ElBaradei, whose father was a prominent Egyptian lawyer and president of the Egyptian Bar Association, was born in Cairo in 1942. He received his first law degree from Cairo University and a doctorate in international law from New York University School of Law in 1974. His adviser at the university, the late Thomas M. Franck, a leading international law specialist, said in an interview with me in 2004 that there was only one word to describe ElBaradei: “Brilliant.”
Franck added that besides his scholarly achievements, his former student also developed into a skilled diplomat early in his career. After earning his doctorate, ElBaradei returned to the Egyptian foreign service, where he had worked before enrolling at New York University. Franck recommended that he be assigned to UN headquarters as a senior research fellow. By 1984, ElBaradei, by then a recognized specialist in arms control and the peaceful uses of nuclear technology, was named legal counsel to Hans Blix, the formidable director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, based in Vienna.
In 1993, ElBaradei became assistant director of international relations for the agency; in 1997, he succeeded Blix as the agency’s director-general for a four-year term. He was reappointed to a second term by the board in 2001, amid controversy and rumors that the American government was attempting to block his continued service.
ElBaradei’s relations with Washington were not always smooth. In particular, there were differences over how to handle Muammar el-Qaddafi, the former Libyan leader, who agreed to dismantle a developing nuclear weapons system late in 2003. UN officials said that the United States wanted to control the process and tried to undermine ElBaradei, as they had undermined and tried to discredit Blix in the months before the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Blix had been head of the Iraqi disarmament program for the UN and wanted more time to carry out inspections in Iraq before the US acted.
ElBaradei has also been credited with taking an independent line on Iran, whereby working with Europeans, he could gain entrance to more nuclear facilities through diplomatic perseverance. ElBaradei had proved to be adept at dealing with “difficult people,” Franck said.
If ElBaradei emerges as a political leader or force behind the scenes in this yet-again tumultuous period in Egypt, his relations with the US will be watched closely by many in the Middle East and Europe. An internationalist fluent in English, ElBaradei is the cosmopolitan face of Egypt, but he could also bring to the table the same strong personality and sense of purpose that gave him the independence for which he was known a decade ago — and for which he shared the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2005 with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The award was bestowed for ElBaradei’s efforts, the Nobel citation said, “to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.” On that issue, President Barack Obama and ElBaradei are on the same page.
[This article was updated on July 9.]
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.