Until a few weeks ago, Egypt’s state media regarded Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian Nobel laureate and the just-retired head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as a credit to his country.

He was seen as a man who had dared speak truth unto power – defying the US in 2003 over its claims that Iraq had a covert nuclear arms programme.

But the former Egyptian diplomat has now become the target of ferocious attacks in the state press after his name was put forward as a potentially credible candidate for the next presidential poll in 2011.

Worse, Mr ElBaradei first appeared to respond positively to the suggestion. He issued a statement last week saying he would run for president if the constitution was changed to allow all Egyptians to compete and if the election was conducted by a truly independent commission, supervised by international monitors.

Osama Saraya, the editor-in-chief of Al Ahram, the main government newspaper, accused Mr ElBaradei of “bearing a grudge towards his country”, and said he represented foreign interests “opposed to the Egyptian reform experiment”.

The editor of another government newspaper said Mr ElBaradei had opposed Egyptian and Arab interests at the IAEA, and suggested that he had helped the US to invade Iraq in order to secure another term as head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog.

Mofid Shehab, a government minister, was quoted as saying that Mr ElBaradei, would be “wrong” if he considered running for president because he had spent a long time abroad and lacked political and party experience.

“I believe these attacks are a kind of pre-emptive strike,” said Amr El Shobaki, a political analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “ElBaradei is a distinguished international figure who is also a son of the Egyptian state who has worked in the foreign service. This disturbs because he represents a rational and moderate alternative.”

The controversy over Mr ElBaradei comes at a time of heated debate over the succession to Hosni Mubarak, the 81-year-old president.

While there are no plans for Mr Mubarak to retire, there is a strong sense that the country is in a transition period. Parliamentary elections next year and a presidential poll in 2011 will play a decisive role in shaping Egypt’s immediate future.

Mr Mubarak has never appointed a vice-president, and many Egyptians believe that Gamal, his younger son, is being prepared to succeed him. Gamal Mubarak, who heads a powerful policymaking body in the ruling National Democratic party (NDP), would be eligible to run on the party’s ticket.

The Egyptian constitution sets tough eligibility conditions for independent presidential candidates who are not affiliated to any of the parties in parliament. In particular, candidates need to secure 250 endorsements from members of elected councils.

This hurdle, widely considered to be almost insurmountable, is seen as being designed to limit the competition to leaders of weak legal political parties who could easily be defeated by the NDP candidate.

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