What values could ElBaradei mean?

(Originally published by Tahrir Squared.) 

One month after General Abdelfattah el-Sisi appointed him vice president - following the arrest of President Mohamed Morsi and forcible end of Morsi's government, Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei isreportedly in Vienna, his second home, having quietly left Egypt behind after resigning his position in the wake of the bloody clearing of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Cairo's Rabaa el-Adaweya Mosque, where several hundred protesters - some of them armed - died in a brutal police rampage.

ElBaradei was never a savvy politician. His cleverest move - returning to Egypt amid the broiling revolutionary fervor surrounding Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's downfall in Tunisia - could be argued as a lucky twist of fate. His persona, down to his very vocal pitch, was not built for populism. Those who observed his public appearances outside of Cairo said his aides connected better with the crowd. His climactic appearance in Tahrir Square during the 18 days ended with him surrounded by a mob, struggling to be heard through a megaphone. Many Egyptians regarded him as a half-foreign, too-liberal aristocrat who lived in Austrian salons. Others found ways to blame him, as chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for enabling the US-led invasion of Iraq.

But ElBaradei possessed what nearly every other political player lacked: a set of principles. Despite obvious openings, he stayed out of compromised post-Mubarak governments. His admonishments - foremost among them his early call to draft a new constitution first, before elections - now look like the prophecies of a sage.

Some analysts argue that ElBaradei sacrificed his principles when he agreed to join Sisi's post-Morsi government, in effect providing a fig leaf for a military coup. Others, including those with close knowledge of negotiations to peacefully end the Rabaa el-Adaweya sit-in - negotiations in which ElBaradei represented the government - say that ElBaradei's fig leaf was not insignificant, and that he briefly served as a real check on the military's desire to crush the Islamists. US and EU negotiators reportedly warned that ElBaradei would quit if the government put down the pro-Morsi sit-in by force, and he did.

"As you know, I saw that there were peaceful ways to end this clash in society, there were proposed and acceptable solutions for beginnings that would take us to national consensus," he wrote in his resignation letter. "It has become difficult for me to continue bearing responsibility for decisions that I do not agree with and whose consequences I fear. I cannot bear the responsibility for one drop of blood."

He was not joined by other liberals in government, including those who belonged - or had once belonged - to his Constitution Party. Education Minister and law professor Hossam Eissa, former ambassador to the US Nabil Fahmy, and economist and former MP Ziad Bahaa el-Din all remained. Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, who resigned in protest as finance minister when the military killed at least 28 Coptic Christian protesters in 2011, strongly defended the crackdown on the Islamists.

Disparaging ElBaradei risks ignoring just how lonely his voice is in contemporary Egyptian politics. Hours after he resigned, the broad anti-Morsi coalition known as the National Salvation Front, which had appointed ElBaradei its leader, released a statement praising the clearing of Rabaa el-Adaweya, saying that Egypt had "raised its head high in victory over those who traffic in the name of religion." A later statement, addressing ElBaradei's resignation directly, expressed "regret" at his decision, mentioned that he had not consulted with the coalition beforehand, and pointedly declared "steadfast" support for the military-appointed government.

Within the NSF, some were furious with ElBaradei. Sentiment among many liberals and leftists had long ago turned harshly against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, and a more recent state-aided media campaign to label the Islamists as "terrorists" had been energetically adopted by private television channels and much of the public. The first draft of the NSF's "victory" statement, circulated among members of the prominent Free Egyptians Party, was left largely unchanged when it was released to the media by NSF spokesman Khaled Dawoud, who would resign in disgust days later.

The same day that ElBaradei resigned, youth members in the Free Egyptians and June 30th Front, a loose assemblage that grew out of the wildly successful Tamarod movement to gather signature petitions against Morsi, drafted a letter to convince him to change his mind. In polite and deferential language, the letter opened by lamenting that the youth had to hear of ElBaradei's resignation from the media and pointing out that they had appointed him to represent them and the "June 30 revolution which came to correct the path of the January revolution and complete it."

 "If we were part of the decision to authorize you to assume this position, we expected to be part of the consultation before making any decision with respect to leaving the position during this dangerous, critical and sensitive time," they wrote. "Even though we may understand some of the motives and reasons for it, we see a definite error."

"It is your responsibility and work to be very clear, and it necessitates you, and all who belong to the January revolution, to remain now in their positions and to carry their responsibilities," they continued.  "We carry you ... and we carry all symbols of the revolution present in power, whose responsibility is to stay now ... in this critical, sensitive and very delicate moment, in which the people and their revolution will either triumph or be subject to terror and blood."

In an email shared among party members, ElBaradei responded: 

"My decision is irreversible. I cannot serve when certain core values I live by are violated or pursue policies that I believe are against the interests of our country and people. I respect your views and will always support you but you owe it to me to respect my decision even if you disagree with it."
The youth's representative quickly wrote back, saying ElBaradei's reply had been ambiguous. What values, which interests of Egypt did you mean, he asked. We need transparency, the representative told another liberal party member.

ElBaradei responded again, saying he would soon be out of Cairo:

"Values like respect for human life and getting the country into more violence. As I told you, you could disagree with my decision but you need to respect it. I could not live with any other decision."

But among the NSF, whose members had months earlier already accepted the need for a military intervention, there was little respect. Days later, Amr Moussa, the head of his own Conference Party, would declare ElBaradei's role in the coalition over. But on Wednesday, a prominent member of the Free Egyptians was more blunt. He compared ElBaradei's resignation after the Rabaa killings to his lack of a response during days of attacks on Christian churches and property; perhaps ElBaradei's sympathies to the Brotherhood indicated a nefarious connection, he suggested.

Otherwise, the official wrote, cursing, what values could ElBaradei mean?