You Can’t Go Home!

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The events in Egypt continue to resonate with celebrity politics.  Reflecting on my last blog post on the state hold on celebrities  it is useful to focus briefly on Mrs. Mubarak.  A number of Wikileaks about her role show her involvement in Egyptian politics.  Far from being content in playing a symbolic role as First Lady, Mrs. Mubarak was interpreted by a number of US diplomats to have played a major political role in trying to assure a dynastic succession to Gamal, the Mubaraks’ son.

But let me shift the focus in this blog post from the old regime to more future oriented scenarios. In particular I view the events in Egypt as opening up the puzzle once again:  can celebrities go home again?

To suggest that an individual such as Mohamed ElBaradei is a celebrity runs into all sort of thorny definitional questions. But he did gain a measure of fame from winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his work as director of the UN nuclear agency. These achievements put him in a different category than those who gain celebrity status only by some form of support to a cause.

Yet, in some ways the question of whether or not a notable such as ElBaradei can go home again echoes other circumstances from the world of entertainment and sports. Although the list is likely longer, those I put at the top of the cluster of those celebrities away from their home are: Wyclef Jean, George Weah and Imran Khan.

All of these individuals received some measure of kudos as long as they concentrated their attention on non-political activities. Wyclef Jean used the fame he achieved as a member of the Fugees as a platform to build the Yéle Haiti Foundation. George Weah a star footballer became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and an advocate for youth in his home country of Liberia. Imran Khan moved from being an iconic cricketer to an activist, starting a charitable foundation in Pakistan bearing the name of his mother and serving as a UNICEF special representative for sports.

Moving from social activism to success as an elected national political leader however seems to be a ‘bar too high’. George Weah lost the Liberian presidency in a run-off with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Imran Khan had a disappointing career as a politician. And Wyclef has been barred from running for the presidency in Haiti for not meeting the residency requirements.

These failures can all be put down to problems attached to these individuals – whether opportunism or lack of organizational prowess. Yet their lack of success also reveals how difficult it is for celebrities – whether defined by ascription or achievement – to go back home.

Such a bar, although not the only constraint in the case of ElBaradei, offers an insight into how difficult it will be for him to emerge as a political actor in the new Egypt.

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