*U.S. hopes for reform, but doesn’t expect revolution
*ElBaradei seen lacking ties to power centers such as army
By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei’s return to Egypt will not change U.S. calculations on the protests rocking the country given Washington’s reluctance to be seen as meddling in Egyptian politics and his own limited popular appeal.
ElBaradei, a possible candidate in Egypt’s presidential election this year, flew back to Cairo from Vienna on Thursday, injecting himself into a volatile situation which has seen three days of unprecedented protests against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
The return of ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is seen in Washington as a potentially complicating factor, but not a game-changer.
“ElBaradei hasn’t been willing to take the risks of bare knuckle fighting,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“In the current environment it would be very hard for the United States to bet against a government with which it has both extraordinarily broad and extraordinarily deep cooperation.”
ElBaradei said he intended to take part in the protests and told Reuters before his return that it was time for Mubarak to step down.
President Barack Obama, speaking in an interview on YouTube, noted that Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel and said Mubarak continued to play an important role on tough issues in the Middle East.
“But I’ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform — political reform, economic reform — is absolutely critical for the long-term well-being of Egypt. And you can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the street,” Obama said.
The U.S. response to ElBaradei’s return was muted, perhaps signaling a reluctance to be seen as meddling in a country where Washington has long cast a shadow with annual aid topping $1.3 billion per year.
“This is a matter for the Egyptian people — and how they view his return,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
Political analysts said Washington hoped to encourage gradual political change in Egypt but did not expect a sudden shift as occurred in nearby Tunisia, where protests ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after two decades in power.
ElBaradei is a well-known figure in Washington but had an uneasy relationship with the administration of former President George W. Bush after he disputed the U.S. rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Prior to returning to Cairo, ElBaradei wrote a scathing critique of the U.S. response to Egypt’s crisis, saying he was “flabbergasted” by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s view that Mubarak’s government was stable and seeking to respond to the aspirations of its people.
“If you would like to know why the United States does not have credibility in the Middle East, that is precisely the answer,” ElBaradei wrote on the Daily Beast website.
“When you say the Egyptian government is looking for ways to respond to the needs of the Egyptian people, I feel like saying, ‘Well, it’s too late!’”.
Brian Katulis, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, said the 68-year old ElBaradei’s prominent international profile did not necessarily translate into popular backing in Egypt, where many activists resent his long absence during a career forged chiefly overseas.
“It remains unclear whether El Baradei’s return will help unify the groups of protesters coming out into the streets,” Katulis said, adding that there was no evidence ElBaradei had any relationship with Egypt’s security forces, a potentially fatal flaw in a nation ruled since 1952 by ex-officers.
ElBaradei also risks being eclipsed by Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement, which has thus far not participated in the protests but may shift to a more public stance if the demonstrations continue to spread.
Ellen Bork, director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a Washington-based non-profit, said ELBaradei’s return might increase U.S. leverage on Mubarak to promote reforms ahead of the presidential election expected in September where he may seek yet another six-year term.
“The important thing to focus on is whether (ElBaradei), or any other independent candidates, have access to the ballot, and are able to campaign freely,” she said. “The U.S. needs to press for specific reforms to make these conditions possible.”
Alterman of CSIS said that with the security services and military all firmly behind Mubarak, ElBaradei would appear to have little hope of leading political change in Egypt.
And he added that sweeping political upheaval may not be the goal of protests thus far spurred chiefly by outrage over corruption, unemployment and high prices.
“What most Egyptians really want is a government with better outcomes, and it is sometimes easier for successor authoritarian governments to say they are addressing those needs,” Alterman said.
“The real cry here is not so much for democracy but for justice.” (Editing by Jackie Frank)