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Egypt’s political figurehead Mohamed el-Baradei is back. Or is he?

Following three years of silence, Mohamed al-Baradei gave a lengthy TV interview to the London-based channel al-Araby

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

Following three years of silence, Mohamed el-Baradei gave a lengthy TV interview to the London-based channel al-Araby. As the first part of five was aired, so were several of Baradei’s tapped calls on the Egyptian satellite channel Sada al-Balad.

Shortly after, calls for Baradei to be stripped of his Egyptian citizenship echoed across parliament and social media citing the leaked calls in which it is alleged he “insults the army” and should therefore be considered a “traitor.”

Baradei mattered for a number of reasons, but these for the majority of Egyptians - both supporters and detractors - do not include being the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the former vice president of Egypt, or an internationally acclaimed academic, but rather his major role in paving the way for the January 2011 Revolution and his emergence ever since as a national icon.

The interview and its ramifications not only proved that Baradei still matters, but also raised a number of questions about the purpose and impact of his return, if it can be called so.

Journalist Mai Azzam argues that Baradei might be planning to run in the upcoming presidential elections and sees the interview as the possible beginning of an electoral campaign. “In the interview, Baradei implicitly demonstrated his disagreement with the current regime by appearing on a Qatari-funded channel considered in Egypt to be relatively sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and expressed a view on Syria that is more in line with Saudi Arabia than Egypt,” she wrote. “At the same time, he presented himself as wiser than previous presidents especially Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat who made wrong decisions that harmed the country.”

For Azzam, Baradei appeared as a politician whose expertise and academic background enable him to take diplomatic positions that seem much needed at the moment. “He criticizes Camp David and supports the Palestinian cause while stressing the importance of peace in the region and not being hostile to Israel; he has no issues with Qatar and supports the Saudi Arabian stance on Syria,” she explained. “And he says nothing that might be of concern to the United States.”

If this is the case, Azzam said that airing Baradei’s tapped calls is not in the best interest of the current regime since it shows that it does not tolerate any opposition. “The wiretaps, which are produced by security institutions and aired by media professionals known for their loyalty to the current regime, portray the regime as fragile, which serves Baradei if he really intends to run.”

Journalist Hayat al-Yamani argues that the only way Baradei’s interview can make a change is if he acknowledges his responsibility in the violent dispersal of the Rabaa al-Awadiya sit-in, staged by Islamists following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. “A direct apology for that is the only way this interview would be meaningful,” she wrote. “And since only the first part of the interview was aired, this remains to be seen.” Yamani, who considers Baradei “the icon of a revolution who was the first to let down,” does not expect Baradei to emerge victorious following this interview regardless of its real purposes.

“Unfortunately, everyone watching the interview will remember a promise he did not keep or an action he did not take. It’s not that Egyptians hate him, but rather that he never really liked them, being the ‘hypocritical,’ ‘trashy’ and ‘backward’ people they are,” she added, in reference to words Baradei used in his phone calls to describe several revolutionaries and public figures. Yamani, however, stressed that the leaks are only a proof of how the state is afraid of the interview. “The question is: will they find enough wiretapped calls to cover the coming four parts of the interview?”

While admitting that wiretapping Baradei’s calls without the proper warrant is illegal, constitutional expert Shawki al-Sayed refuted claims that the Egyptian regime is afraid of Baradei’s appearance. “Baradei’s appearance after all this silence is indeed suspicious and I believe he is taking advantage of the problems through which Egypt is going in order to manipulate the public,” he wrote. “The regime could be upset because Baradei’s intentions are obviously not good, especially that his views are against the Egyptian state.”

According to journalist Ahmed Nada, the concurrent airing of the interview and the leaks revealed two faces of Baradei.

“In the phone calls, he was being himself and was openly criticizing everyone he believed obstructed the revolution while in the interview he is the diplomat who calculates every word he utters,” he wrote.

“The two undoubtedly brought Baradei back to the limelight and provided an excellent opportunity for his supporters to reiterate, sometimes in an exaggerated manner, how wise he is.” For Nada, both Baradei and his supporters seem to be “outside of history,” since they were not able to learn from their mistakes. “If they insist on the same elitist discourse used extensively in 2010 and 2011, everything they say will seem cliché and irrational,” he explained. “Baradei is the man of bad timing and long silences.”