January 29, 2011 / 1:24 PM / 9 years ago

NEWSMAKER-ElBaradei: from UN atom chief to Egypt activist

* ElBaradei as political force in Egypt still an unknown

* Nobel peace prize winner transformed nuclear watchdog

By Sylvia Westall

VIENNA, Jan 29 (Reuters) - It’s no surprise to those who have worked with Mohamed ElBaradei that the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief has reinvented himself as a campaigner for reform in Egypt.

But whether the veteran diplomat and Nobel peace laureate can be an effective force for change in his home country after so many decades working abroad is a huge unknown.

A possible candidate in Egypt’s presidential election this year, ElBaradei, 68, flew to Cairo on Thursday, putting himself at the centre of whirlwind of unprecedented protests against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

“Knowing the man, he’s doing that for his country, I’m convinced,” said Pierre Goldschmidt, who worked as ElBaradei’s head of global inspections at the IAEA from 1999 to 2005.

“I think he believes he has a real mission there. What the consequences of his action will be, that is the big question. I am not sure he even knows himself.”

ElBaradei has said Mubarak should step down and has offered to help in a transitional government. He has said Egypt needs a new constitution that would better respect human rights and put checks on power.

On Friday he was briefly penned in by police after he prayed at a mosque in Cairo but he later took part in a peaceful march with supporters. Arabiya television said later police had “asked” him to stay home but this could not be confirmed.

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TAKE-A-LOOK-Egypt’s unprecedented protests [nLDE70O2DA]

Map, economic profile of Egypt link.reuters.com/fez67r

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OUTSPOKEN BUT SHY

ElBaradei is credited with helping to transform the U.N. nuclear watchdog from a little-known technical body into a high-profile agency prepared to take a stand on major political issues relating to non-proliferation, which critics said went beyond its mandate.

The Cairo-born lawyer spoke out on the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, alienating many in the Bush administration. But his firm stance won the admiration of many of those who worked with him at the Vienna-based agency.

“This is a man of unwavering conviction,” said Melissa Fleming, ElBaradei’s chief spokeswoman from 2001-2009. “He certainly has wise leadership recipes to make this world a much better place.”

ElBaradei also did not shy away from criticising leaders in Arab states and said they had to take responsibility and reform rather than blaming other countries for their ills.

“The Arab world has introverted upon itself and has failed to identify its priorities. It denies the existence of serious problems,” he told Al-Hayat newspaper in 2008.

“When I see that Egypt, the pioneer of the Arab world, ranks 112th in terms of human development, I feel deep sorrow.”

Mubarak awarded ElBaradei the Greatest Nile Collar in 2006, Egypt’s highest award for service, in recognition of the Nobel peace prize he won with the IAEA the previous year.

Shortly after leaving the IAEA he started to get more politically involved and returned to Egypt in February last year to an exuberant welcome from supporters who hoped he would run for president.

“The odd thing is that I don’t think he even likes crowds that much,” said Ayhan Evrensel, an IAEA spokesman from 2005-2009.

“There was this spotlight on him as a person, he would stand before 30 cameras at the IAEA. But in the end he just wanted to get the job done and didn’t want to publicise it that much.”

Colleagues painted a picture of a man who they said was often mistakenly characterized as aloof.

“He was actually quite shy, so he is not comfortable in big social gatherings,” said one colleague who worked extensively with ElBaradei over several years but declined to be named because they were not authorised to speak to the media.

“The people who worked closely with him were very fond of him. He inspires great loyalty in people.”

Former colleagues said ElBaradei’s determination to help reform Egypt is not in doubt, but they wonder how much support he has at home. They noted that running a well-organised U.N. agency is far different from leading an opposition movement.

“If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have said his chances (of success) were very small,” Goldschmidt said.

“That’s the merit of his attitude though — that you don’t need to think you will succeed in order to change things.” (Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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