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Egyptian Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei is emerging as the leader of anti-regime protests, working with a

Key role

Egyptian Nobel Peace laureate emerging as leader of anti-regime protests, unifying opposition.

 

By Guillaume Lavallee - CAIRO

 nebulous patchwork coalition of secularists, Islamists and Internet users.

On Sunday, the veteran diplomat made a noticeable but somewhat embarrassed appearance in Cairo's Tahrir Square, facing hundreds of demonstrators itching to hear the mediocre orator, who now speaks for Islamists and secularists alike.

Bearded men, old lefties, pro-democracy militants, the unprecedented uprising against Mubarak's regime mirrors the fabric of Egypt's fragmented society and reflects the strong stamp of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"They organise, they prepare the food (for the protesters), they distribute water, clean-up the neighborhood, they brought these speakers," said Said Khalil, a Muslim man whose forehead was marked from prayer prostration.

"Here you will see extremists, moderates, Christians, Muslims, all kinds of people. It is the first time that we are all together since the revolution of Saad Zaghloul," said Naguib, another demonstrator, referring to the leader of the 1919 revolution against the British occupation.

"On American television, they won't stop saying that if Mubarak steps down, the Muslim Brotherhood will take over. But this is not the case. It is really the people who are coming together for their rights," said Tamer, an American-Egyptian.

Tewfik Aclimandos, a specialist on Egypt at the College de France, a Paris-based higher education and research

 establishment, said ElBaradei's strength and weakness comes from his lack of binding commitments.

ElBaradei "does not have his own troops. This is simultaneously the source of his strength and his weakness. He is hostage of no one but he cannot turn things around by himself."

He added that ElBaradei's appeal owes to the fact that "he is not compromised by the regime; he has integrity."

In the wake of the Tunisian uprising, the April 6 Movement, an online group calling for democratic reforms during the last three years, launched a new call to action on its Facebook page.

ElBaradei, who retired as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2009 and won the Nobel prize in 2005, developed close ties with these young militants by turning to the Web to harness support for his cause.

Rather than join a political party, the 68-year-old ElBaradei created a movement of his own, the National Association for Change, to act as an umbrella for a range of opposition groups.

He also approached the Muslim Brotherhood, which is formally banned but tolerated in Egypt, and added his voice to their call for regime-change and the promise to uphold democracy.

The Brothers, and other opposition groups, gave ElBaradei the mandate "to negotiate with the authorities" in order to find a solution to Egypt's crisis, confirming the key role he has to play in coming weeks.

"As in Tunisia, the protests appear to represent a largely leaderless movement with no clear agenda and no way to seize power," says Jon Alterman, from the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Up to now, it appears firmly based in Egypt’s squeezed middle class. It is possible that radicalism could fester in subsequent chaos, or that radical groups that are included in a broader coalition could come to control the government," he said in a statement.

"In many ways, the key decisions will be made over the next six to 12 months, as interest groups jockey for position and try to seize the opportunities created by change."

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