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El Baradei is Egypt’s new prime minister, unless he isn’t

Earlier today, Egyptian state media announced that Mohamed ElBaradei, a former chief of the U.N. nuclear agency, had been appointed Egypt’s interim prime minister. But later, according to the Washington Post, the announcement was “rolled back” after Islamists who joined in the coalition against ousted president Morsi threatened to withdraw their support if ElBaradei is installed.

El Baradei, who may yet be selected, is seen as a secularist and is a favorite of Egypt’s urban elite. He was also a leading critic of Hosni Mubarak.

El Baradei is not above cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood, though. He did so prior to Mubarak’s ouster, and he now says that he favors a role in the new government for members of the Muslim Brotherhood and for ultraconservative Salafist Muslim political groups.

Clearly, though, the Islamists don’t trust him, and probably with good reason. Hence the snag is his ascension to higher office.

Whether or not El Baradei becomes prime minister, the snag demonstrates that the Islamists remain a factor in mainstream Egyptian politics, notwithstanding Morsi’s ouster. Indeed, it’s difficult to see how they could not be a factor, given their immense support among the Egyptian masses.

But let’s take the analysis one step further and ask what it means to be a secularist, as opposed to an Islamist, in Egyptian politics. According to Stanley Kurtz:

Egypt’s secular parties are a loose coalition of hardcore Arab nationalists, socialists, and communists, bound only by their burning hatred of America and Israel. Authentic liberal democrats make up only the tiniest part of the mix.

Kurtz suggests that the best way to think about the secularists is in terms of Nasser’s vision of aggressive Arab nationalism abroad and socialism at home.

Regardless of who becomes president or prime minister, though, the military presumably will be in charge for a while, probably a good while. And the military doesn’t seem interested in aggressive Arab nationalism abroad. Reportedly, Morsi’s growing interest in adventurism in Syria and Ethiopia was part of what turned the military against him.

Nor, I gather, is the military’s domestic vision particularly radical. The military is a major economic force in Egypt, with the army’s business holdings said to represent up to 30 percent of the economy. The miiltary wants to stabilize the economic boat, not to rock it.

Accordingly, the military desires a prime minister who will serve as a front-man in its pursuit of stability. Morsi failed the test because he was neither a front-man nor a force for stability.

El Baradei probably seems like a good candidate in part because he’s familiar to the West, which will be expected to provide assistance. But to the extent that his selection alienates Islamists, the most dangerous of the boat-rockers, a rethink may be in order.

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