When the Mohamed ElBaradei resigned from his post as vice president of Egypt on August 14, many interpreted his action as an act of protest against the military government’s violent crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, given the timing of ElBaradei’s decision — he resigned just hours after the military announced it would use lethal force against protesters — this appears to be a valid understanding of his resignation.
While western countries saw ElBaradei as a key player in negotiations between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood and hoped he would remain in his post, the military government’s actions left the former vice president with little choice but to resign. Still, some in Egypt accuse ElBaradei of abandoning the nation in a crisis, and an Egyptian law professor brought a lawsuit against him for this very reason. This lawsuit, which is charging ElBaradei with "betrayal of trust," demonstrates Egypt’s descent into authoritarianism as anyone who openly questions or rejects the military government is deemed unpatriotic. This is an extremely troubling sign for those who hoped protests in Tahrir Square were the embers of what would become a successful democracy.
The lawsuit against ElBaradei, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, sets a dangerous precedent in a country that lacks a comprehensive, respected constitution. While the penalty would be relatively minor — a misdemeanor that could cost ElBaradei up to $1,400 — his conviction would have more serious ramifications for the Egyptian people, many of whom already don’t trust the country’s legal system. If upheld, ElBaradei’s conviction could signal to many Egyptians that they can expect to be persecuted upon disagreeing with the military government’s policies.
The lawsuit will likely encourage Egypt's intellectual class to seek refuge from an unjust rule of law outside Egypt’s borders. The result will be a continued brain drain as potential leaders in both the private and public sectors could abandon a country quickly descending into anarchy. The social and economic effects of such a brain drain would have long-lasting consequences for Egypt and the Middle East.
For those without the resources to flee, the suit will further cement deep-seated divisions between supporters of the military government, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and supporters of a liberal democracy that protects Egyptian citizens’ rights regardless of their group affiliation. This will inhibit progress towards democracy. It will ensure that even if democratic elections take place, elected officials will likely view politics and power as a zero-sum game, excluding political opposition from policy decisions and key government posts. This would cause Egypt’s government to perpetually be on the brink of collapse. Instability would become the norm. Tragic events like what we witnessed last week are likely to become more common.
For Egypt’s sake, let’s hope the court throws out the lawsuit against ElBaradei and demonstrates its commitment to justice, regardless of the politics.