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Egypt's would-be president faces tough balancing act

Amr Moussa seeks to portray himself both as political veteran and reformer. But past ties could hurt him more than help him.

June 23, 2011|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League and candidate for the Egyptian presidency, listens to a speech by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon via videoconference at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo.
Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League and candidate for the… (AMR ABDALLAH DALSH, REUTERS )

Reporting from Cairo — Just outside his office at the Arab League, Amr Moussa displays the typical power photos of Western politicians: handshake snapshots with the king of Spain, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Clinton.

But in other photos, the longtime diplomat who is Egypt's leading presidential contender appears beside Syrian President Bashar Assad, Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

With the photos serving as a reminder of how close Moussa was to the previous Egyptian regime and to world leaders now likewise threatened by popular uprisings, the Arab League secretary-general faces a difficult balancing act in the coming months as he tries to position himself as both political veteran and reformer.

"He might well be the right man for this moment if he sets a clear agenda and helps a new political system to mature," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar-based think tank. But Moussa has "quite a mixed balance sheet" domestically, he said.

Moussa, who is running as an independent, has more name recognition and mass appeal in Egypt than do other leading candidates in the historic vote, which is expected to be held shortly after parliamentary elections in September. That includes Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, and Ayman Nour, who challenged Mubarak in 2005.

Moussa had a 41% approval rating compared with Nour's 32% and ElBaradei's 25%, according to a poll released in April by the Pew Research Center.

Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the once-outlawed Islamist group whose political wing is expected to sweep the legislative elections, have said they don't intend to field a presidential candidate, though that could change after the parliamentary balloting.

Speaking with The Times at his office recently, Moussa called his experience a major asset, including his time as foreign minister from 1991 to 2001 and years of service before that as Egypt's ambassador to India, Switzerland and the United Nations.

He said his ties with Mubarak's regime are "not a big hurdle" because he did not belong to the then-ruling National Democratic Party, "nor had I been part of the policies and practices and corruption."

When Moussa, 74, speaks about Mubarak, he adopts the language of revolutionary activists.

"It is the time to move from dictatorship to democracy, from bad management to good management, from a regime alienated from the people to a regime based on the will of the people," Moussa said. "I believe in democracy and am capable of leading the process of reform that will deal with the disorder that has hit our society for the last 10 years or so."

But Mubarak was not in power for a decade — his rule lasted nearly 30 years.

Some revolutionaries say Moussa failed them by not speaking out against Mubarak earlier or coming to Cairo's Tahrir Square to support them when protests began in January, said Ahmed Maher, general coordinator of the April 6 youth movement.

"He had a chance to do a good thing and support the revolution, but he refused — he was just watching," Maher said. "After he was sure Mubarak would leave, then he could join the movement."

When asked why he first came to Tahrir Square in February, shortly before Mubarak stepped down, Moussa became agitated.

"I went twice to Tahrir Square during the revolution," he said, adding that other candidates may allege that his appearance in the square was a political calculation, but "whatever they say, you can just throw it away."

Shortly after he began campaigning last month, Moussa came under criticism from audiences in Upper Egypt who accused him of being too close to members of Mubarak's party. During the trip, Moussa sparked controversy when he met with a former parliamentary candidate from the party.

"It damaged him," said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Despite such early missteps, Moussa remains popular with Egyptian moderates, Rashwan said, especially families and those who are less politically active.

"He is perhaps the only candidate with a future vision for Egypt," said Mohamed Salmawy, president of the Egyptian Writers Union and a friend of Moussa's. "People think of him as the person who can steer the boat through these times, these tumultuous seas."

Moussa said that as president, he would maintain relations with Israel but continue to push for a two-state solution with the Palestinians based on Israel's 1967 borders. He wants to hold talks and possibly reestablish relations with Iran, all the while staying on good terms with the United States.

None of these positions seem contradictory to Moussa, who knows he has been called a chameleon.

"I see in this a compliment," he said. "One can change tactics, the way he addresses an issue, in order to solve it."

But he insisted that doesn't mean he has changed his core values or will change his agenda to suit the times.

"The solid thing is, I am in favor of Palestinian rights, fair peace in the region and for change in the Arab world, for democracy and reform in Egypt," he said. "Those are principles that I cannot, and I am not, going to change."

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