CAIRO, Egypt - The former chief of the U.N.'s nuclear agency, responding to public calls to run for president, bemoaned a lack of democracy in Egypt - and triggered charges in government media that he is an American stooge.

In an open letter published in newspapers over the weekend, Mohamed ElBaradei said he would only consider a run for the nation's leadership if the country made major strides toward democracy.

The prospect that either President Hosni Mubarak - who has ruled for 28 years - or his son will run and win the 2011 election has led Egypt's opposition parties and other activists to seek out and support anyone who might have a fighting chance against the ruling party.

ElBaradei is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Other names that have been floated include those of Arab League chief Amr Moussa and Egyptian American chemist Ahmed Zweil, who is also a Nobel laureate.

ElBaradei, who has lived in the West for nearly three decades, said he would only consider running if the constitution were amended to allow any Egyptian to run for president and remove restrictions that make it nearly impossible for independents or newcomers to enter the race.

He also said elections must be monitored by international observers, the Egyptian judiciary, and an independent civil body, instead of being overseen by the Interior Ministry, which controls Egypt's internal security forces.

In his letter, ElBaradei wrote that without such changes, the elections would lack legitimacy and "will end as expected, like a Greek tragedy."

"If I decide to run for this high post - one that I didn't seek - it would only be if the majority of Egyptians, regardless of their affiliations, consider this in the interests of the nation," ElBaradei wrote.

ElBaradei, who briefly served in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, is one of four Egyptian Nobel laureates.

He gained stature for his handling of Iran's and North Korea's nuclear files at the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, and for challenging Washington's claims that Saddam Hussein had a secret nuclear program.

"He has all the criteria that the Egyptians need," said Alaa el-Aswani, a writer and vocal critic of the government. ElBaradei has no connection with Egypt's current regime and so "is a model, an inspiration, who has clean hands," he added.

Aswani said ElBaradei's input is more of a road map for reform than a real pitch for the 2011 election.

The campaign to persuade ElBaradei to run began as a group on the social networking site Facebook.

One group posted ElBaradei's photo with the caption "Yes we can" under it, borrowing Barack Obama's campaign slogan.

Mubarak supporters were less than enthusiastic.

Pro-government newspapers called ElBaradei arrogant, uninformed, and an American stooge.

One editorial said ElBaradei's comments were tantamount to a constitutional coup. Another said he was propagating ideas that would allow Muslim fundamentalists to get hold of the keys to power.

ElBaradei, the son of a prominent lawyer who headed the Egyptian Bar Association in the 1960s and lobbied for democratic reforms, didn't respond.

But in an appearance on a private television station last month, he said he learned from his father to speak the "truth and keep going."

"We shouldn't fool ourselves. . . . We've reached rock bottom," he said.