Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Saturday, 1 May 2010 12:02 UK

Mohamed ElBaradei could spark political upheaval in Egypt

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Cairo

President Hosni Mubarak
President Hosni Mubarak has been in power since 1981

With presidential elections on Egypt's horizon, those opposed to the government run by President Hosni Mubarak since 1981 want change. They are pinning their hopes on the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nobel Peace prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.

A small band of student protesters had gathered outside the offices of the al-Ghad opposition party in downtown Cairo, intending to hold a peaceful rally at which they would call for democratic change.

But waiting for them were several lines of heavily armed riot police, among them the plain clothes thugs which the Egyptian government often uses to carry out its dirty work.

Even before the march had begun its intended journey to the nearby parliament, the police batons were unleashed.

The protesters were beaten and the journalists there to cover the event were beaten. Photographers were manhandled and cameras confiscated.

"I'm determined to carry on pushing until the situation changes," said one young woman, who then removed her scarf to show me where she had been hit on the head.

Goodness knows what happened to some of her fellow protesters, who were dragged to waiting cars by groups of plain clothes police.

Protester in Cairo with riot police
Instead of using water hoses to disperse them, the police ought to shoot them - they deserve it
Nashaat al-Qasas
government loyalist

Inevitably, these violent crackdowns prompt heated exchanges in parliament about freedom of speech and human rights.

Frequently, there are calls for restraint, but one prominent lawmaker from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) had a different message.

"I don't know why the interior ministry is so lenient with those who break the law," declared Nashaat al-Qasas, a Mubarak loyalist.

"Instead of using water hoses to disperse them, the police ought to shoot them - they deserve it," he added.

The opposition media said his words laid bare the arrogance of the ruling establishment and were an open endorsement of police brutality.

A former commander of the Air Force and vice-president, Hosni Mubarak was elected president of Egypt and became supreme commander of the Armed Forces after the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in October 1981.

For 29 years the government here has maintained a state of emergency, which has given it sweeping powers to curb any dissenting voice.

Boy with a picture of Mr Elbaradei
Egyptian politics might be heading for a tantalising phase

But now the arrival on the Egyptian political scene of Mohamed ElBaradei has energised those calling for change.

Since arriving back in Egypt two months ago, the former head of the IAEA has unified the much-divided opposition under the banner of the National Coalition for Change.

Mr ElBaradei is untainted by the corruption within Cairo's ruling elite but, as yet, it is far from clear whether he will be permitted, under the constitution, to contest the presidential elections next year.

But that has not stopped him listing the country's ailments, from poverty, to widespread illiteracy, to the dangerous social tension between Muslims and Christians.

His fellow Egyptians have been consistently "insulted" by a system that denies them their political rights, he has said.

In the past, opposition figures who have dared to be so openly critical of the establishment have been summarily neutralised.

Ayman Nour, who came a distant second to President Mubarak in the 2005 election, was jailed soon after on what many considered spurious charges.

ElBaradei supporter at a rally
There has been a groundswell of support of ElBaradei

He is now free, but his political standing has been ruined.

There have already been attempts to discredit Mr ElBaradei in the press.

At the Coptic Easter Service he was seated next to the US ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, and by the time they had both realised the implications, and swiftly changed seats, the photos were already on their way to the front pages of the pro-government papers.

"American stooge," headlined one, gleefully.

Before the emergence of Mr ElBaradei, President Mubarak had spent years trying to convince popular opinion in the West that without the suffocating controls, the Islamists would inevitably win a popular vote.

This is the reason why his youngest son Gamal Mubarak is often introduced to the West as his most likely and safest successor.

But now that theory is being challenged.

However slim Mr ElBaradei's chances are of becoming president, he is seen as a catalyst for change, and that has brought new hope that there can yet be a secular but inclusive alternative to Egypt's ruling NDP and its military backers.

Mr ElBaradei has hardly shied away from the Islamist question.

He has already met senior members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, whose supporters currently control 20% of Egypt's parliament.

They are the Islamists with the biggest grassroots support but they have not yet said how far they are prepared to travel with Mr ElBaradei.

They support some of his principles but not necessarily his candidacy for the presidency.

And so in the run up to the 2011 presidential elections, Egyptian politics is entering a new tantalising phase with far-reaching implications.

The public can smell change. The regime is repositioning itself, wary of the new forces in its midst. But there are unknown quantities.

The biggest of them all is the army - the silent partner. It knows that with the passing of this president the balance may well tip.

And when that happens, national security will be paramount, not just to reassure concerned neighbours like Israel but also the army's generals themselves.

They have a controlling stake in every aspect of Egyptian life, in politics and also the economy.

And at the moment, no-one really knows what the generals are thinking.

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