CAIRO — The prominent Egyptian presidential candidate and Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei made a surprise withdrawal from the race Saturday, dealing a blow to young supporters who'd counted on him to guard their revolution from the country's new military and Islamist leaders.
ElBaradei released a statement and 16-minute video explaining that he was quitting the June election because he couldn't find space in the current political landscape to "serve the goals of the revolution" that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak a year ago. His withdrawal comes just days before the Jan. 25 anniversary of the uprising's first major protest.
In his statement, ElBaradei was scathing in his assessment of the ruling military council's chief, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, likening Egypt to "a ship that was led by a captain who wasn't chosen by its passengers and who lacked leadership experience." He criticized Tantawi for "insisting to continue down the old path as if the revolution never happened and as if the regime never fell."
Analysts, however, had mixed views on whether ElBaradei's sudden withdrawal was a sincere gesture of disdain for the military-led transition or a graceful exit for a liberal with no place in an Islamist-dominated political scene.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sun News
ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N.'s atomic watchdog, returned to Egypt in 2010 amid great excitement from the country's browbeaten liberals, who'd hoped he would challenge Mubarak in a presidential election — a bold move that would've forced the taboo subject of succession onto the national stage.
That scenario, of course, never came to pass, as days of demonstrations forced Mubarak to resign, replaced by the Tantawi-led Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled by decree since assuming power.
Despite enjoying large pockets of support, particularly among revolutionary youth movements, ElBaradei was considered a long shot for the presidency because of his unshakeable image as an outsider. He spent much of his life outside Egypt as an international diplomat.
"He withdrew with dignity. Now I respect him," said Nefesa Zakariya, an Egyptian-American attorney and activist. "I lived in America for 45 years. I wouldn't come to Egypt and say, 'I want to be president.'"
ElBaradei's liberal agenda also might have proved unpopular with much of Egypt's electorate, which just elected an Islamist majority into parliament in the first post-Mubarak polls. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party won an estimated 40 percent of seats, followed by the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party, which captured about 25 percent, according to partial results from the election.
Whatever drove him to his decision, ElBaradei's departure from the race is likely to unsettle the political scene just months before presidential balloting. Mahmoud Shokri, a former Egyptian diplomat and political commentator who knows ElBaradei, called the announcement a "shock to all of Baradei's supporters."
Under plans drawn up by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, presidential elections are scheduled for June, with a new president seated in July. That's before Egypt is expected to have a new constitution, a situation that ElBaradei frequently criticized.
In Saturday's statement, he said he couldn't bring himself to seek an office through elections that lack "a constitution that regulates the balance of power and protects freedoms, or under a constitution whose articles will be assembled in just a few weeks."
Several fellow presidential candidates, including former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and Islamist leader Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, expressed regrets over elBaradei's withdrawal. Others criticized him for giving up what's widely expected to be a long battle for full civilian control and democratic rule.
"This decision will not affect the policies of the ruling military," said Abdalla al Ashaal, a former diplomat who's also running for president. "If we couldn't influence them as candidates, does he think he'll change them by quitting the race?"
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent. Hannah Allam contributed from Cairo.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy's Hannah Allam on Twitter.