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Mohammed ElBaradei faces challenges on return to Egypt

20 February 10 09:44 GMT

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Cairo

The former United Nations nuclear chief, Mohammed ElBaradei, is contemplating his future after arriving back in Cairo on Friday to an excited welcome from supporters.

More than 1,000 well-wishers gathered at Cairo airport calling for him to run in presidential elections due next year.

They waved flags and held up posters saying "Yes: ElBaradei President of Egypt" and sang the national anthem.

"I am here because I want the bad situation in Egyptian society to change," commented one woman, Leila. "I say to Dr ElBaradei: 'we need you, we support you'."

Difficult choice

As head of the International Atomic Energy Agency for 12 years, Mr ElBaradei built an international reputation handling negotiations with Iran over its controversial nuclear programme. In 2005 he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since leaving the Vienna-based UN agency in November he has called for political reforms in Egypt where President Hosni Mubarak has been in power for nearly 30 years. Many believe Mr Mubarak, who is 81, is preparing to hand power to his son, Gamal.

"ElBaradei has made a difficult choice to come back to his country," observed the best-selling Egyptian author, Alaa Al-Aswany, who joined the crowds at the airport.

"He could have had a beautiful retirement but instead he came back to support his people to get a real democracy. He is very prepared for the consequences of this because it does not come for free."

With large gatherings banned under emergency laws, activists were careful to avoid provoking airport security.

They travelled to the airport in small groups after warnings that no public demonstrations would be allowed.

Ahmed Maher, who leads the youth political activist April 6th Movement and was temporarily detained on his way to the airport, says he has faith in Mr ElBaradei.

"If he nominates himself, we will back him and promote him. He should be the alternative to the existing regime. He is held in high international esteem and has great administrative experience. He is a very appropriate person."

In an interview with Egypt's Dream TV ahead of his return, the long-time diplomat, who is 67, repeated that he would enter political life on the condition that there were free elections.

He called for a constitutional amendment that would enable him and others to become candidates.

Criticised

Current constitutional rules effectively bar him from standing in a presidential race. Contenders must have been a leading member of a political party represented in parliament for at least a year.

To stand as an independent candidate he would need at least 250 signatures from officials in elected bodies that are dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party.

State media have already criticised Mr ElBaradei for his comments on Egyptian politics. He has been accused of knowing little about his country after decades working abroad for the UN.

Some well-known reform campaigners have also raised questions about his suitability to run for office.

'Clinging to straws'

"He doesn't have a past in activism or politics in Egypt," notes well-known blogger, Wael Abbas.

"He's not Lenin coming back to Russia after the Revolution or Mandela coming out of prison. So I don't think the support for him is well grounded."

"What I believe in that some people are clinging to straws. They are sinking and they are clinging to something that they think might help their lives."

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