Egyptian presidential candidate and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa,… (AFP/Getty Images )
AGA, Egypt — After an unfriendly journalist was tossed off, Amr Moussa's campaign bus headed north to the Nile Delta, where barefoot boys and peasants greeted him with horns, drums and two dancing horses.
Moussa arrived as both novelty and sensation, a front-runner in Egypt's first freely contested presidential election. The former diplomat who once negotiated with world leaders walked roads strewn with hay and spotted with manure, giving speeches on dignity and chatting with elders near herds of sheep and sheds full of broken farm equipment.
Unsure of the precise nature of presidential powers, field hands and factory men gambled on a few requests, some of them written on scraps of paper: a job for a son, electricity, a building permit, running water. Slogans filled the air, candy was thrown, and the bus slipped away behind a truck warbling music.
"It's a strange feeling to see a presidential candidate," said Mohamed Shoeb, a sanitation worker waiting on a corner for a glimpse of Moussa. "I can't really describe it."
The bus rolled on. Mothers held up babies, and little girls, dressed in sequins and taffeta, stood smiling in the dust, unsure exactly what was happening. An aging farmer was lifted onto shoulders and a laborer carrying a bag of cement mix and a sifter followed banners and ululating women. Butchers clapped. A doubter on a bicycle with a crooked wheel asked:
He scoffed and pedaled away.
But much of this nation, which has veered from uprising to uncertainty over the last 15 months, is fascinated by the spectacle of candidates traveling along the northern Mediterranean coast and into the troubled deserts of the south. For decades, deposed President Hosni Mubarak was the only real choice. But on May 23 the ballot will hold 13 names, including Islamists, liberals and a judge.
With his bus trip to the delta last week, Moussa ventured into a political stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate, Mohamed Morsi, has dropped to third in the polls. Moussa's secular message speaks to concerns that Islamists, who have unsteadily controlled parliament, might dominate the government. He touts his experience as a foreign minister and chief of the Arab League.
Many Egyptians believe Moussa, 75, can restore stability, increase foreign investment and reverse Egypt's loss of stature in the region. He likes to speak of reviving the grandeur of the distant past. His critics view him as an establishment candidate who served Mubarak more than a decade ago and who fails to embody the revolutionary ideals that helped inspire the"Arab Spring."
Clansmen in the delta don't fret much over ideals. Moussa's bus — his name taped on the side — tangled traffic and caught the eyes of camels and passing schoolgirls in crisp white hijabs. Faces filled balconies, shutters swung open; men gathered in the shade near a nut shop as Moussa was hurried down an alley and up flights of stairs to meet with political operatives skilled at delivering rural allegiances.
Students waited with placards in the street, and police, more curious than vigilant, sauntered in the sun along market stalls. It felt like a carnival without rides and, although men and women were swinging scythes in the fields in rhythms unchanged for centuries, there was a sense, however fleeting, that a new era had arrived with the gray-haired man and his entourage from the capital.
"The people don't quite understand the political process," said a campaign strategist, who asked not to be named. A roundish raconteur in a tie and suspenders, he has connections across the delta and is whispered to a lot.
"Their minds are not set yet to a presidential election. They think a president solves personal problems. This factory manager wants Moussa to come and talk to his workers. People hand me notes.... We don't sleep. I haven't slept for more than a year."
Moussa's not a charismatic speaker, yet he's attuned to his audience. "The Egyptian peasant is the backbone of this country," he told a rally in the delta, where the soil is fertile but poverty is high. "We need to bring justice back to the peasant."
Such rhetoric resonates in this region of brick kilns and fields that stretch to Alexandria. The delta has often felt orphaned, the nation's heartland but also a discomfiting reminder of failed agricultural policies. In village after village, houses stand unfinished, waiting for husbands and sons to return from other countries with laborers' wages in their pockets.
"Moussa is the only one who can save Egypt," Shoeb said. "We lack security. We lack jobs. We have little. Our young men sneak to Italy on broken boats to look for work."