CAIRO — Nobel Peace Prize winner and former United Nations nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei is shaking up Cairo's entrenched political elite by eyeing a run for the presidency of this authoritarian state.
Hundreds of Egyptians chanting "We want change!" welcomed ElBaradei at Cairo's airport on Friday as the former head of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency returned to Egypt for the first time since leaving his U.N. post.
As arguably Egypt's best-known international public face, ElBaradei represents the stiffest challenge yet to President Hosni Mubarak, 81, who has been at the helm of the Arab world's most populous country for the past 28 years.
Most Egyptians expect Mubarak's son Gamal to "inherit" the presidency; the government has conducted a series of well-documented political manipulations that all but assure the younger Mubarak the seat while excluding any serious challengers.
Opposition newspapers and activists, however, are urging ElBaradei to run, painting him as the symbol of hope for democratic change.
"Oh Baradei, we want change, we want a new constitution, long live Egypt!" chanted an estimated 400 people who showed up to greet the diplomat at the main airport in Cairo.
Prominent academics and writers mingled with ordinary Egyptians at the rally, which, though small, entailed great risk for participants in a country where activists and dissidents of all stripes are monitored — and often intimidated or imprisoned.
"We have a terrible constitution, made especially for the president and his sons," said the best-selling novelist Alaa al Aswani, author of the hit "Yacoubian Building." "We need real change in Egypt, we are seeking real democracy."
Many among the crowd said ElBaradei appealed to them because he is an internationally known figure with a respected record and because he is widely viewed as untainted by the rampant corruption in Egypt's government.
An independent group calling itself "ElBaradei for Presidency of Egypt 2011" has more than 65,000 members on its Facebook page. Members of that group held posters on Friday that proclaimed them to be from cities across Egypt, and not just from cosmopolitan Cairo.
Perhaps wary of appearing too concerned about ElBaradei, the Egyptian security apparatus kept its notorious riot police far from the scene and there was no violence.
Airport officials ushered demonstrators and journalists onto a sidewalk, but couldn't contain the throng once ElBaradei arrived. A small stampede broke out as supporters rushed the arrivals gate, forcing ElBaradei to leave through another exit, where relatives bundled him away in a waiting car.
"By entering the political arena, ElBaradei has given strength and momentum to the current political movements," said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor and analyst who opposes Mubarak's son becoming the next president.
Nafaa said several activists are scheduled to meet with ElBaradei on Tuesday to discuss Egypt's political future. Their main desires, Nafaa said, were free elections, free choice of candidates and revisions to the constitution to achieve these goals.
Current electoral rules prohibit ElBaradei from running because he's not a member of a political party. Some political analysts speculate that the Egyptian government will offer ElBaradei a consolation post such as foreign minister or prime minister as a way to contain him and weaken his popularity.
Leaders of the ruling National Democratic Party repeatedly have said there'll be no change to the constitution ahead of elections. Parliamentary elections are to be held at the end of this year, followed by presidential elections in 2011.
Pro-reform groups fear Mubarak will either extend his rule for a fifth term or pass the mantle to his son. Apart from ElBaradei, the only other candidates mentioned are close cronies of the Mubaraks.
(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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