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ElBaradei’s Gandhi Moment?

[ElBaradei in Tahrir Square on 23 November 2012 protesting Morsi's decree. Image from “Akhbar ElBaradei” Facebook Page] [ElBaradei in Tahrir Square on 23 November 2012 protesting Morsi's decree. Image from “Akhbar ElBaradei” Facebook Page]

When Mohamed ElBaradei entered Tahrir square on 27 November 2012, he was greeted with chants of, “Oh ElBaradei, Egypt’s Gandhi.” Since the days of the January 25 Revolution, comparisons with Gandhi have followed ElBaradei and entered the popular imagination. ElBaradei himself claims this comparison is not merited and is grossly overstated. For a start, Gandhi was a young and little-known lawyer when he began the struggle to liberate India, whereas ElBaradei entered Egypt’s freedom movement as an eminent world figure, the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace and the Nile Medal, Egypt highest honor. Gandhi led a national movement for over three decades, whereas ElBaradei has been on the national political scene for a mere three years. Despite glaring differences between the two figures, as Egypt’s post-Mubarak conditions continue to deteriorate and the society becomes alarmingly polarized, certain parallels in their struggles and positions are becoming more evident, while contrasts deepen. At this unique juncture in Egypt’s contemporary history, with the country polarized ahead of a critical and contentious constitutional referendum, this comparison warrants close examination.

Both Gandhi and ElBaradei are towering figures of their times and agents of cataclysmic change. History thrust ElBaradei onto Egypt’s stage as society became poised to claim its liberation from the tyranny of an autocratic, oppressive, and corrupt regime. Gandhi, in contrast, made history through decades of building and leading peoples’ movements in South Africa and India, culminating in the Independence movement from the British colonial paternalism. Notions of liberation permeate the rhetoric and actions of both Gandhi and ElBaradei. Gandhi’s efforts were both psychic and functional as he crisscrossed a vast territory, one community at a time, to help people realize their dormant power in the face of the Empire. ElBaradei’s contribution to Egypt’s freedom struggle is akin to Gandhi’s in that he focused on liberating the Egyptian mind from the weight of decades of repression. Both the British Empire and the Mubarak (and now Morsi) regime met wide popular opposition to their reigns, which were characterized by stubbornness and cruelty.

Both figures are pragmatists, reformers, and unifiers in societies undergoing deep divisions, which renders them vulnerable in the political arena. They share a common political temperament, which can be partly attributed to their legal training and universalist intonation. ElBaradei’s obsession with the constitution—from his attempts to amend it during the last year of Mubarak’s rule, through the current crisis over the draft constitution and referendum (not to mention that his party, Al-Dostor, means “Constitution”), resembles Gandhi’s obsession with emancipation, both from the Empire and his country’s ossified caste system. Each possesses a moral compass that allows them to block out the noise and alertly move forward, resiliently and focused, towards their admittedly lofty goals. Each one, in his way, abides by Gandhi’s dictum, “Always aim to complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well.” It is perhaps for this reason that both have been accused throughout their struggles of being too idealistic and utopian, almost to the point of being unrealistic.

Many of Gandhi’s supporters thought that his commitment to non-violence could not face off against the Empire’s military apparatus. Similarly, many of those whose views are in concert with ElBaradei’s feel a deep frustration with what they see as an unwillingness or inability to go far enough in his positions and affect deeper change. His supporters often speak of him as detached and indecisive, as someone who backtracks or walks away from tough challenges, as when he withdrew from the presidential race in 2011. In the current constitutional crisis, many hoped he would take a more stringent anti-Morsi position instead of pushing, largely unsuccessfully, for a canceling of the 15 December referendum and reforming of the constitutional process. His supporters cite one missed opportunity after the next. Nevertheless, whether or not he has taken the high and right road can only be known for certain in hindsight.

Gandhi and ElBaradei possess fundamental ideas about rights and social justice entrenched in the law and legal institutions, though they do not stop there. Gandhi embodied his humanism by shedding the symbols of caste and class. He famously replaced his western-style suit for a homespun dhoti and lived communally in an ashram side-by-side with the “untouchables.” He spent much of the independence struggle writing, traveling, and communing with India’s poor and peasantry, often seen as a peculiar choice given his stature and substantial political influence. He traversed across India using very simple means to connect with people from different faiths, ethnicities, castes, and classes. It was his effort to rescind the luxuries of life and to inhabit the minimalistic existence of India’s poor that spoke to the genuineness of his cause and transformed Gandhi from visionary to deliverer. He also wrote voluminously. In his lifetime as an activist, he produced many manuscripts and letters about the struggle and its every facet; from theology to justice, and from the socio-cultural to the philosophical.

ElBaradei, by contrast, has been unapologetic about his privileged background, and comfortable in his skin as a jet-setting diplomat. The cosmopolitan world which he inhabits, as he moves between homes in Egypt and Austria and travels the globe, is far removed from the life of the “ordinary” Egyptian. His chosen modes of activist expression are Twitter, Facebook, press conferences, and online video statements. These communication tools, well-suited to the twenty-first century, have been an impediment to getting his message across to Egyptians on the other side of the digital divide. This has been both a blessing and a curse, a blessing as far as the vision and global know-how and cosmopolitanism he brings to the Egyptian political landscape and a curse as far as electoral dynamics and populist outreach is concerned. Most of ElBaradei’s critics, both from within his camp and among his adversaries, complain about his aloofness and inability to relate to the common Egyptian or at least evoke their temperament and sensibilities in speech, dress, or mannerism. He has therefore failed his wider constituency, Egypt’s poor, by speaking of them and for them but rarely to and with them. This inability to inhabit the lives of all Egyptians, a la Gandhi, has so far been ElBaradei’s Achilles’ Heel.

Furthermore, ElBaradei is not by nature a revolutionary, but rather someone whose career was crafted by work within the diplomatic corps and institutional bureaucracies. He seemed to have reluctantly embraced the revolutionary label when he rallied with youth groups’ demanding for a freer and fairer Egypt. From 2010, he has been supporting their efforts in the streets and squares, both in person and from a distance, to help them break the barrier of fear that kept Egyptians from confronting authority. Mubarak was rarely challenged (with Ayman Nour’s bold-yet-unsuccessful competitive presidential bid in 2005 a notable exception). So when ElBaradei returned to Egypt in 2010, he drove towards a head-on collision with the regime that took them by surprise. As the January 25 revolution erupted in 2011, ElBaradei returned to Egypt to stand with his fellow protesters in Tahrir Square. Nevertheless, it took almost two years, spurred by the calamitous constitutional process and President Morsi’s decree to grant himself sweeping and unchecked powers on 22 November, for ElBaradei to be roused enough to sleep in the Square. When ElBaradei finally awoke, though still not quite the “man of the people” his supporters still wish him to be, he had inched a little closer in the direction of becoming a revolutionary "leader."

ElBaradei articulated the crisis in his characteristic lucid and lean style with a Tweet on 3 December: “A president with immunity and absolute powers in the absence of an independent judiciary and a constitutional project that creates tyranny means that turning to the ballot box is an act of deception, lacks legitimacy, and is fraudulent democracy.” He called on the Egyptian people to stay put in Egypt’s “Freedom Squares” until their demands were met. His instruction, “hold your position” (ithbat makanak), has become a slogan of the second wave of the revolution currently underway. With civil unrest escalating, ElBaradei issued a video statement on 7 December where he called on all Egyptians, inside and outside the country, of any and all political affiliations, to hold firm, stay peaceful, and unite to ensure the integrity of the state, its institutions, and the constitution.

[ElBaradei offers a stern yet conciliatory message to President Morsi while attempting
to unite Egyptians in opposition of the referendum on 7 December 2012 on the heels
of the Ittihadiyya clashes (ARABIC)] 

Was this ElBaradei’s Gandhi moment? Can he achieve the role of a unifier at this critical juncture in Egypt’s history, a time when the divisions are sharpening? Can he stand, if only symbolically, for huge swaths of disaffected citizens who remain determined to realize the goals of the Egyptian revolution: bread, freedom, and social justice (aish--hurriya--adala ijtimaiyya) at a time when Morsi’s government and the draft constitution pushed forth by Islamists violate all of these goals? One must revisit ElBaradei’s transformation from an international technocratic diplomat and statesman to a political dissident in Egypt to prognosticate on these queries. 

The Nobel Effect

ElBaradei was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2005 jointly with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the aftermath of an illegal and devastating war on Iraq, which he did he best to prevent. As the Director General of the IAEA between 1997 and 2005, he undoubtedly felt the weight of global security on his shoulders. In the face of immense pressure from the US government, ElBaradei stood firmly on his claims that the IAEA found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He was not able to stop the 2003 US-led war on Iraq, but his position was vindicated when no such weapons were unearthed. Similarly, he has consistently and tirelessly criticized Israel on its undisclosed nuclear program and the United States on extra-judicial threats against Iran. He warned that a war with Iran would lead to a global catastrophe and should be averted by all means. He demonstrated, time and again, that his most sacred commitment is to the security and integrity of the “human family.”

Being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize elevated ElBaradei to the level of an international ambassador of peace and non-violence. The words from his Nobel speech are indicative of his supranational and humanistic views: “Some would say that it is too idealistic to believe in a society based on tolerance and the sanctity of human life, where borders, nationalities and ideologies are of marginal importance. To those I say, this is not idealism, but rather realism, because history has taught us that war rarely resolves our differences. Force does not heal old wounds; it opens new ones.” It seemed that upon receiving this honor, ElBaradei felt he had been granted the hefty responsibility of utilizing this accolade to orient his efforts towards social movements that speak to his values. Upon leaving his job at the IAEA, he quickly turned his attention to Egypt and began his campaign to challenge Egypt’s long-standing authoritarianism.

He speaks eloquently about what it means to be a human being, a global citizen. But in the fractured and fraught context of today's Egypt, ElBaradei eschews questions about what it means specifically to be an Egyptian. ElBaradei has anchored his critique of dynamics in Egypt in a global context rather than a nationalist discourse. He has refrained from propagating notions of Egyptian exceptionalism with, for instance, uttering platitudes about Egypt being um al-Dunya (“mother of the world”), and appealing to religious and emotional sentiments. Instead, ElBaradei prefers to speak truth to popular bigotries, such as the condemnation of Israeli assaults on Palestinians, which does not preclude him from citing the Holocaust as one of the calamities of modern history. Applying the same standards to all forms of human oppression and injustice may seem like it would be a point of strength. However, his universalist approach and style of moderation leaves him weak and vulnerable before many supporters and foes alike. The former wish he would take a bolder stance against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and former regime elite, while the latter ridicule him for being out of touch, too foreign, elite, and secular. Nevertheless, in the face of criticism, he has disavowed neither his personal proclivities nor his commitment to universalism.


[“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win”--Gandhi. 
Cartoon by Doaa Al-Adl published in Almasry Alyoum on 22 March 2011]

The Uniters

While Gandhi and ElBaradei may be seen as visionaries, they are also pragmatic strategists particularly when it comes to the question of national unity. Gandhi strove to unite all Indians, the hundreds of millions who spoke over 400 languages, without discrimination. He needed this majority to be able to confront the Empire. To do so, he had to operate across multiple divides. He did not want to deny the right of any Indian from taking part in the liberation movement. By transforming, restructuring, and infusing energy into the Indian National Congress (INC) that dated back to 1885, Gandhi had shifted from an organization that talked shop to a unified and inclusive people's movement. Even in his early days as a barrister in South Africa, while working under Indian Muslims, Gandhi asserted the importance of “Indianness” over religion and creed. This call for unity became even more important in the face of imperial power. He had many encounters with those who were functionaries for the Empire in India, but he never alienated them, fought them, undermined them, or sought to prosecute them. It was for this reason that he was able to appeal to all groups irrespective of their particularities. For Gandhi, much of this stance was focused on a mature sense of citizenship and humanity.

In his magisterial biography of his grandfather, Rajmohan Gandhi conveys how Gandhi thought it a folly to reject working with people merely because they were associated with the British Empire. On the issue of whether to welcome India’s own remnants of the old imperial regime, their “felool,” to borrow a term from the post-revolution Egyptian context, Gandhi said,

“They have not become our enemies because they served the British Government […] Please remember that they are at heart patriots […] If we seek the advice of such […] persons, they will show their genius.”

Gandhi made a point of reaching out to the talented and experienced figures of the day. He notably identified Ambedkar, former member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, to join and serve in the first cabinet of free India in 1947. As Rajmohan Gandhi writes, “Ambedkar became India’s law minister, chaired the committee that drafted the Constitution, and piloted the Constitution Bill into law. The invitation and acceptance were gestures of wisdom and magnanimity.”

Gandhi's meditative musings indicate that he was conscious of the importance of healing for nations in trauma, which came with the avoidance of retribution and reprisal. Committed to his utopian vision, he tried his mightiest to hold the fort together as everything began to unravel and the unified front splintered after independence. Despite his best efforts, Gandhi could not prevent the tsunami of violence that would be unleashed during the period of partition, and could not escape the bullet of a Hindu nationalist that ended his life.

ElBaradei, having accomplished and acquired everything he wanted in life as he so often states, seems to use his position, clout, experience, and vision to unite in a manner reminiscient of Gandhi. His struggle over the constitution and fight for the integrity of state institutions is not about who wields power or who the occupant of the presidential palace might be, or who holds a parliamentary seat. Rather, it is about the composition and structure of the State, the accountability of its institutions, and the goal of ensuring that all Egyptians, regardless of religion, gender, location, or political affiliation, are represented and emancipated in the second republic. In his vision of Egypt, ElBaradei includes the Muslim Brothers, Egyptians abroad, Christians, rich and poor, agnostics, and sympathizers and members of the old regime—the diversity of people and groups that comprise Egyptian society.

It is fitting that ElBaradei should be named as coordinator of the current National Salvation Front, the coalition of over twenty groups and parties that includes former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabbahi and Amr Moussa, a former Mubarak-era foreign minister, that was formed to confront President’s Morsi recent power grab. Hamdeen Sabbahi (fifty-eight years) in particular complements and contrasts ElBaradei. He is a seasoned opposition figure with a long and respected record of advocating for the poor and peasants. His activism landed him in prison for years under both the Sadat and Mubarak regimes. During the presidential contest of 2011, Sabbahi was the dark horse candidate who came in third place. Given the inadequate time and his scarce resources, he put together a strong campaign, resulting in an impressive showing indicative of his broad base of support among middle and lower class Egyptians who call him “wahid minina," or “one of us.”

[ElBaradei with Hamdeen Sabbahi, Amr Moussa as a united front in
Tahrir on 23 November 2012. Photo from Almasry Alyoum]

The Front’s adversaries are not particularly the Brotherhood or Salafists; rather, they are the very principles the revolution rose up against in January 2011: authoritarianism, inequality, injustice, and tyranny. Sadly, the continuation and enshrinement of such conditions are a testament to the assumption of the Brotherhood and their Islamist supporters to the position of autocratic guardians of the state. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies are fighting with every weapon at their disposal to demonize and vilify the opposition, rather than trying concede anything to their opponents. Instead they have accused them and anyone who criticizes their conduct on the constitution of being traitors, disloyal conspirators, thugs, former regime operatives, and worst of all, non-believers. They are trying to cling onto their rank and file, their own adherents. When Mubarak did this, it was an assured sign of a dying authoritarian regime desperately trying to survive. 

The Making of a Movement?

There are self-evident similarities between India’s National Congress Party and Egypt’s own National Salvation Front. Both bodies began organically, reflected a substantial proportion of the country's popular will, brought together a new crop of political leaders with moderate figures from the old regime, and were focused on uniting people around a fixed set of objectives. However, a shortcoming of the Front is its relatively weak ties with people and parties who represent a more Islamist framework as well as a perceived distance from the growing ranks of disaffected and younger former Muslim Brotherhood members. Yet, as ElBaradei experienced previously, reaching out to and embracing former or current Brotherhood members could lead to problems of infiltration and attempts to appropriate the movement. The calculation about how to handle the delicate balance between inclusiveness and integrity of a movement is by no means self-evident.

In the last week, the National Salvation Front's standoff with the presidency reached a crescendo. The Front demanded that the constitution be redrafted to represent all Egyptians, not just the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies. President Morsi refused to concede on the constitution and instead speedily pushed the documet referendum. In response, ElBaradei and Front committed themselves to non-cooperation in form of near-continuous protests ahead of the vote.

Violence erupted on 5 December as Muslim Brotherhood (MB) supporters, or “militias” (while spoken of speculatively in the past, the conduct of the pro-Morsi groups that day seemed to confirm militias as a sound characterization), descended on protesters holding a peaceful sit-in around the presidential Ittihadiyya palace. President Morsi’s supporters kidnapped and tortured a number of protesters in the makeshift holding area they set up in front of the palace. While the National Salvation Front could not provide them protection, they were swift in issuing condemnation of the violence. ElBaradei dispatched a Tweet: “Vicious attack vs. peaceful protesters in front of presidential palace without police protection. Regime leading Egypt into violence & bloodshed.” As opposed to prominent Muslim Brotherhood figures such as Essam El-Erian, who called for their members to come out and confront the protesters, ElBaradei and other members of the Front have been adamant in their calls for peaceful protest and the use of non-violence.

Non-violent civil disobedience is one way to undermine the intransigence of those in power. At this juncture, ElBaradei’s coalition needed to show that it not only has a contingency plan, but a longer-term strategy. If ElBaradei, drawing on the wealth of the Front’s leaders and the tremendous momentum of the past two weeks, could have formed the basis for a new political and social movement in the country, it could have been unstoppable. If ElBaradei had played the role of Gandhi within the front, it could have become analogous to the Indian National Congress in bridging religious rural/urban, social class, generational, and ideological divides. To achieve these goals, ElBaradei needed more than alliances within the Front leaders; he needed to establish a partnership with other leaders in the same way Gandhi connected with Nehru, Jinnah, and other local visionaries and comrades across the country. Finding Egypt’s “Nehru” is essential for the success of his movement, and the absence of a grassroots participatory campaign with local leaders will only derail its efforts. While ElBaradei and Gandhi are not politicians absconded in the hallways of institutions of power, but rather they are public intellectuals who at critical moment in history were at the helm of a national movement, ElBaradei needs to take it to Egypt's most disenfranchised.

Can the National Salvation Front, a coalition that formed in the height of a political and constitutional crisis, transform into a much-needed grassroots movement to carry on with the work of political education, local development, and the hard work of liberation? History will not judge ElBaradei on whether he was able to succeed, but rather whether he was able to lead. If ElBaradei and his colleagues continue to strengthen the hope inside the hearts of their supporters, bridge the divide with their critics in Egyptian society, they will have a fighting chance of changing the nation’s future. As Gandhi said, “What is true of the individual will be tomorrow true of the whole nation if individuals will refuse to lose heart and hope.”

However, with ElBaradei leaving the square after sleeping there for just one night and changing course on the constitutional referendum to call for Egyptians to vote rather than boycott, he may have missed another critical Gandhian moment. Only time will tell. 

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