The Compromise Candidate

Amr Moussa

The competition to be president of Egypt now looks like a three-horse race between Amr Moussa, the ex-Muslim Brotherhood moderate Abdelmonim Abolfotouh, and the Brotherhood’s new candidate Mohamed Morsi, with Moussa seen by many observers as the frontrunner.

Arguably, Moussa has the highest public profile, which could well play in his favor. The 76-year old married father of two is a veteran politician who has been a fixture at the top of Egyptian politics since the 1990s, when he became Mubarak’s foreign minister after a long career in the Egyptian foreign ministry.

[inset_left]Arguably, Moussa has the highest public profile, which could well play in his favor. [/inset_left]

Born in the Cairo in 1936, Moussa entered Cairo University and graduated with a law degree in 1957. The following year he began his career as a diplomat and steadily rose through the ranks, serving in different Egyptian embassies and posts abroad, including a stint at the United Nations, before returning to Egypt to serve as an advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

He returned to the New York in the early 1980s and spent the next decade there, broken only by a two-year tour of duty as Ambassador to India. He served first as the deputy, then the permanent Egyptian representative to the UN, a job he held until the start of the 1990s. It was in this decade, which saw him elevated to become Egypt’s foreign minister, that he became a relative celebrity in Egypt’s political scene.

Although reportedly personally charismatic, it was his forthright manner of speech and blunt condemnation of Israeli policies that made him wildly popular amongst the Egyptian people. In fact, that he was immortalized in song, after Egyptian balladeer Shaaban Abdel Rahim released a song with the lyrics ‘I hate Israel, but I love Amr Moussa’ in 2001.

Acquiring such a high public profile may have had an unintended effect on the foreign minister’s career. It was widely rumored in Egypt that President Mubarak, fearing Moussa’s newfound popularity, arranged for him to be neutralized politically by engineering his accession to the top job at the Arab League. Moussa was appointed Secretary-General of the organization in 2001, where he spent another decade.

As Secretary-General, he helped the organization navigate its way through various regional crises and disputes. At the same time, he never denied his own ambitions. In 2009, he admitted that he was considering running for president, and expressed guarded opposition to the accession of Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to the presidency in a TV interview in 2010. Following the overthrow of Mubarak, Moussa decided that his time had come. He resigned from the Arab League and announced his intention to stand for the presidency as an independent candidate in February 2011.

To date, he has focused mostly on economic development issues in his election campaign, adopting the slogan ‘poverty is our number one enemy.’ He officially launched his campaign in one of Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods, and has organized rallies in several poor rural areas. Among his pledges, he claims that he will reduce poverty levels in Egypt by 20 percent in the next four years, make sharp cuts in the level of illiteracy, and introduce an unemployment-assistance stipend equal to half the minimum wage.

He has also promised to serve for only one term, and to appoint a vice-president closer to the youthful revolutionaries who did so much to oust Mubarak.

Recent polls suggest he has a good chance, and this has only been enhanced by the recent decision of the national electoral commission to exclude several candidates from the upcoming contest. One poll, conducted by Al-Ahram newspaper earlier this month, placed Moussa at the top of the list, with a plurality of support at 30 percent. He is expected to pick up some of the votes that would have gone to the former vice-president, Omar Suleiman, and perhaps a smaller number from the radical Salafi preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who trailed him closely in the same poll.

He enjoys some advantages over his rivals. His time at the top of the Egyptian government has gifted him with name recognition and a public image of respectability and experience that might appeal to those who desire stability in the days ahead, a compromise candidate for those who are glad to see the back of Mubarak but worry about the possibility of radical forces seizing control of the state.

At the same time, this could also hold him back by limiting his support amongst the new, youthful revolutionaries. Foreign Policy magazine called him a “quintessential establishment man.” His ties to the old regime are, after all, strong. Moussa did not reach the top of the Egyptian government by snubbing Mubarak. Ageism may also hinder his chances. In his mid-70s, Moussa may be seen by some as too old to tackle the enormous challenges that he will be faced with.

The first round of presidential elections are due to take place in May. Depending on those results, there may be a run-off the following month. Whoever is elected, they—like Egypt itself—are heading into unknown territory: the new constitution has yet to be written, meaning that the final powers of the presidency are not yet defined. The role of the military in the Egyptian state is also an issue that will have to be resolved, and the economy is in dire shape. Assuming Amr Moussa gets the job he wants, it is developments in these areas that will determine if he can keep the promises he has made on the campaign trail.

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