CAIRO --In the power vacuum that followed the overthrow of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, known more for diplomacy than skilled in the nation’s bruising street politics, formed a coalition and sought to push the restive nation toward a Western-style democracy.
But ElBaradei and other liberals were quickly overwhelmed by the rising tide of political Islam, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate, Mohamed Morsi, captured the presidency a year ago. Circumstances in this volatile country, however, change swiftly and on Saturday, following this week’s military coup against Morsi, ElBaradei was named prime minister of a new interim government.
The failure of ElBaradei and his opposition to energize Egyptian politics last year was not only tied to the power and popularity of the Brotherhood. Though the movement backed some major street demonstrations against Mubarak and the subsequent military rulers, the organization, like much of the opposition, never articulated an inspiring vision. And many people in the street were -- and remain -- suspicious of ElBaradei and what grew into his National Salvation Front.
But the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency remained a key player -- working with young activists and politicians on strategy and tactics. He tweeted -- apparently his favorite mode of communication -- all the time, and because his missives were so succinct they were often reported in the Western media, further enhancing his image to the outside world.
Many will see him as the perfect choice for prime minister: He's intelligent, internationally respected and, most importantly, has no corrupt baggage like so many politicians here do. In many ways, he epitomizes what the Egyptian intellectual and business class aspire to.
His appointment is certainly intended to calm international fears over Egypt's stability and to hurry approval of a crucial $4.8-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. His ascension also may signal pragmatism, political maturity and opportunism by both him and the military. It wasn’t that long ago that Elbaradei was condemning military rule. Now he has embraced a coup, and the generals who have long been suspicious of him have embraced him, at least for the moment.
"ElBaradei was the man pro-army nationalists seemed to hate most not too long ago, now he'll be their army-backed PM," tweeted Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution political analyst.
Added Salma Hegab, a multimedia undergraduate student and blogger: "I can't deny feeling some optimism that ElBaradei will become prime minister, but I don't understand why he accepted the position under the military. I don't understand if this is right or wrong. ... Coming days will show."
ElBaradei's biggest limitation may be that he is, at heart, a bureaucrat. He rarely connected with the Egyptian street, almost seemed uncomfortable among the masses. Many activists, including the April 6th Youth Movement, were disappointed in him in late 2010 and early 2011 for not being enough of a presence in the street.
But he apparently has rebounded – the current youth group Rebel picked him to be their representative in talks with the military. And given the nation's downward economic spiral, Egyptians are less likely to demand a charismatic figure over someone who can fix all the damage.
[For the record: The headline on an earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Mohamed ElBaradei as ElBardarei.]