Egyptians are going to the polls today to begin electing a parliament against a backdrop of growing violence in Cairo's Tahrir Square and spreading fear that the military rulers want to hold on to power.
As reported here earlier, the uprising that pushed Hosni Mubarak out of power last February is looking less and less like a revolution and more and more like a military coup. The generals in charge have been cracking down on demonstrators, balking at promises for greater freedom, changing the rules for drafting a new constitution and in no hurry to transfer power.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former top UN nuclear watchdog, announced this weekend that he's willing to give up his candidacy for president next year if the ruling military council names him the interim prime minister of a national salvation government "with full powers to manage the transitional period until presidential elections are held," according to a statement from his presidential campaign team.
This should sound alarms in Jerusalem and in Washington, where the Obama administration has been pressing Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to accelerate the transition to democracy.
ElBaradei, who won the 2005 Nobel peace prize-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, showed little concern about the Iranian nuclear program while in office and opposed sanctions. Iran's nuclear ambitions are a logical response to Israel's own nuclear program, he said, calling Israel the "number one threat to the Middle East."
That has to raise questions about how he would respond as head of the Egyptian government to the growing Iranian threat and the heightened concern of Arab states in the Gulf.
He also "deplored" the Israeli bombing of the Syrian nuclear site in 2007, saying Israel should have contacted him at IAEA first and he would have looked into the matter and asked Syrian officials about it. I can hear the conversation now: "Hi, Bashar, those @#%&* Israelis tell me they think you're trying to build a nuclear bomb; I know it can't be true, but be on the look out for those nasties and their air force."
An Israeli newspaper reported the U.S., Britain and Israel refused to share sensitive intelligence with the IAEA during his tenure because they did not trust ElBaradei not to share it with Iran.
He has said the price for peace with the Palestinians should be the elimination of Israel's nuclear arsenal.
In Egypt this week, tens of thousands of protesters were back on the streets, this time in opposition to the generals' selection of Kamal Ganzouri, 78, a former Mubarak prime minister in the 1990s, to be the figurehead of their interim government. The previous one resigned last week in the wake of violent and often deadly clashes between police and demonstrators calling for accelerating the transition to democracy.
Protesters are calling for a civilian interim government now, not sometime next year as Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and his ruling generals prefer.
The Moslem Brotherhood is expected to do well in the parliamentary voting that begins this week. This is not unexpected but nonetheless a cause for great concern. It is the best organized political force in Egypt, a founder and patron of Hamas, and no friend of the peace treaty with Israel. Some observers predict the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party could win 25-30 percent of the votes.