VIENNA – Thrust to the forefront as Egypt's democratic hope, Mohamed ElBaradei is no stranger to high-octane public roles. As the chief U.N. nuclear inspector, he stood up to Washington by disputing claims Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was trying to make atomic arms and grappled vainly to end Iran's and North Korea's nuclear defiance.
Critics suggest that with most of his professional life spent out of Egypt as a top U.N. bureaucrat, the austere ElBaradei may be too out of touch with Egypt's politics and people to act as the public face of the revolution attempting to sweep President Hosni Mubarak out of office.
Since his return to Egypt, ElBaradei has reinvigorated a youth movement that reached out to him as a leader for their calls for reform because they saw him as independent, untainted by state corruption and a figure who represents international success.
Some supporters who want him to lead Egypt call him the "Twitter president" because he has relied on the website to communicate with Egyptians.
But his frequent travels outside of Egypt and his sober intellectual air kept him from reaching the hearts of many.
He said he won't act as a "savior" to the Egyptian people, but wants to see young Egyptians working to teach and learn about democracy.
"We need to move from a system that we are used to for 7,000 years, based on personality cult, into a system based on institutions and people to understand that the president works for the people as an employee, employed by the people, and not the other way around," ElBaradei told The Associated Press when he first returned to Egypt.
ElBaradei has reinvented himself before. The lawyer turned director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency moved out of the shadows of the IAEA as a midlevel official and into the corridors of U.N. power for a turbulent 12-year tenure that included winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for himself and his organization.
In parting comments to his staff last year, ElBaradei said he was grateful "to be leaving at a moment when the agency has reached such prominence in contributing to international security and development."
Still, his record is mixed, with most of the issues that threw the spotlight on him and the IAEA still unresolved.
Iran continues to defy four sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions as it expands nuclear activities that the international community fears could be turned from producing reactor fuel to making the fissile core of warheads. Syria is resisting IAEA attempts to act on U.S. and Israeli intelligence that it was secretly building a nuclear reactor geared to producing plutonium. And North Korea, which renounced the IAEA-monitored Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2002 and then quit the agency, exploded its second nuclear test weapon last year and regularly rattles the nuclear saber to get its way.
There's no question the former Egyptian diplomat has backbone, as demonstrated by his willingness to stand up to the United States over Iraq, when President George W. Bush's administration argued that Saddam had a secret nuclear weapons program as a key rationale for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. No such program was ever found.
His independence on Iran further irked Washington, which considered him soft on Tehran — and led to attempts by the Americans to have him removed from his IAEA post.
The push was abandoned just before ElBaradei won the Nobel Peace Prize, but it left the IAEA chief even more critical of the U.S., at least until the change of White House leadership following Barack Obama's election in 2008.
William H. Tobey, a former senior nonproliferation official in the U.S. Department of Energy, said at the time that ElBaradei left the IAEA that the "adversarial relationship ... was not productive," suggesting it emboldened Tehran in forging ahead with its nuclear program.
From his winner's perch on the issue of Iraq and nuclear weapons, ElBaradei argued against the U.S.-led push to harshly punish Tehran, noting there was no proof for American assertions that the Islamic Republic had hidden nuclear weapons aspirations.
He moved closer to the White House view late in his tenure, after the U.S. shifted from isolating the Islamic Republic to trying to negotiate nuclear differences and in the face of continued Iranian intransigence to his attempts to ease tensions.
ElBaradei earned a bachelor's degree in law in 1962 at the University of Cairo. After a stint in the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he received a doctorate in International Law at the New York University School of Law in 1974, and later became an adjunct professor there before moving to the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear agency.
ElBaradei was appointed IAEA director general in 1997, and began leading what had been an obscure organization within the U.N. chain into the limelight. First came North Korea, and Iraq — and the man who once stumbled before television cameras started to speak in sound bites.
Reporters who covered ElBaradei over the next few years on missions to Tehran and elsewhere recall him swapping his suit jacket for a dark blue woolen sweater once his flight was in the air and then inviting them to the seat next to him for interviews.
ElBaradei freely exchanged jokes and anecdotes back then. But after his Nobel Prize win he became progressively remote.
"He was essentially unapproachable to all but a handful of closest advisers," said one agency official of ElBaradei's final years. He demanded anonymity because of the sensitivity of his comments.
ElBaradei himself told The New York Times he viewed himself as a "secular pope" whose mission is to "make sure, frankly, that we do not end up killing each other."
ElBaradei, who is Muslim, sometimes cited his favorite Christian prayer when speaking of his role on the world stage. Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, it begins: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace."
In Egypt, he has also quoted India's independence leader, Mohandas K. Gandhi, to emphasize his peaceful opposition to the government.
In the last months of his term, the U.S. and its Western allies publicly lined up in praise of the austere former Egyptian diplomat.
Glyn Davies, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, described him back then as "often controversial, sometimes exasperating ... (but) always, in all things, a committed man of peace."
Typically, say those who attended, his parting comments to his staff were inspirational.
"Carry forward the torch!" ElBaradei told the gathering, urging them to sustain their "100 percent commitment" to preserving and expanding peace, freedom, justice, and human dignity.
Associated Press reporter Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo.