The press has been scrambling this weekend to keep up with the fortunes of Egypt’s Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. First it looked like he’d been named as interim prime minister of Egypt. Then it turned out it wasn’t a done deal. Whichever way that goes, the renewed spotlight on ElBaradei is inspiring comments about his erstwhile democratic credentials — for instance, The Washington Post web site has an item referring to Elbaradei’s “democratic idealism” and his “democratic credibility.”
ElBaradei has two main credentials. He worked at the United Nations for almost 30 years, capping that career with his stint from 1997-2009 as director-general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. And in 2005, together with the IAEA, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Neither of these provides any evidence of democratic principles. The Nobel Prize is a famous label, but it has been given to such a wide and utterly contradictory range of winners — from terrorist Yasser Arafat to Chinese democratic dissident Liu Xiaobo — that it could mean almost anything. The winner defines the prize, not the prize the winner. In the case of ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize committee, consisting of five members of the Norwegian parliament, picked a UN official during a year in which the UN, beset by the Oil-for-Food scandal in Iraq, badly wanted a boost. It’s hard to find any other reason why at that juncture the Nobel committee was suddenly inspired to celebrate ElBaradei and the agency he ran “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes.” ElBaradei’s tenure as head of the IAEA had already spanned Pakistan’s nuclear breakout in 1998 as well as signs (which he preferred to ignore) of Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program; and in 2006, the year after he got his Nobel, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.