In Egypt race, figure from old era is secular hope

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In the race to become the first president of the new Egypt, the secular candidate with the strongest chance of beating increasingly powerful Islamists has to overcome the baggage he brings from the old Egypt.

On the campaign trail ahead of next month's landmark vote, the 76-year-old Amr Moussa presents himself as an elder statesman with years of experience in politics and government, first from a decade as foreign minister under former President Hosni Mubarak, then from another decade leading the Arab League.

"I can start from minute one as president," Moussa told reporters earlier this month. "The country is in a major crisis, and a major crisis doesn't justify at all a president who will ask around, 'What should I do at this point or that point?' and gaining experience as he goes."

The same experience is Moussa's vulnerability — given his links to the Mubarak regime, which last year's uprising aimed to uproot.

To some in the Egyptian public, Moussa is one of the "feloul," the "remnants" of the old state who they believe will not reform Egypt's longtime autocratic system or challenge the military's dominance over the country's politics.

"No to feloul," proclaimed banners with Moussa's photo — crossed out with a red X — unfurled during anti-military protests held by tens of thousands of Islamists and liberals earlier this month in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Moussa's front-runner status is testimony to how secular, liberal and leftist movements that led the anti-Mubarak uprising have been unable to put forward a prominent figure to carry the banner of the revolution. As a result, Moussa stands as the main alternative for Egyptians who fear that Islamists, who already dominate parliament, will transform the country into a religious state if they also win the presidency.

Moussa's top competition is Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's strongest political movement, which emerged from parliament elections late last year with nearly half the legislature's seats.

The question is whether voters see the election as a choice between secularism and Islamists or between old and new, said Ahmed Khairi, a spokesman for the liberal Free Egyptians Party, who spoke in favor of Moussa though the party has not officially backed him.

"I think that after what we saw in parliament elections, the presidential vote will be on the grounds of civil versus Islamic, and here Moussa is at the top of all," Khairi said. "If the vote is revolutionary versus non-revolutionary, Moussa is a loser."

Moussa sought to play on worries over Islamists in a campaign message Thursday. He said the election is a chance to put Egypt on a path toward "true democracy and a strong, competitive economy" — or else to adopt "concepts and styles that will restrain Egypt's flourishing and throw us into a whirlpool of internal conflict," an indirect reference to Islamists.

Helping Moussa is the reputation he built in the public eye as an outsider in Mubarak's regime.

As foreign minister from 1991 to 2001, he became popular for his vocal criticism of Israel in a government that many Egyptians saw as too cooperative with the Jewish state. According to Egyptian political lore that Moussa has been happy to fuel, a hit pop song from the time called "I Love Amr Moussa, I Hate Israel" prompted Mubarak to dump Moussa from the foreign ministry and move him to the Arab League, fearing that he was emerging as a possible rival.

Known for his Cuban cigars and cool temperament, Moussa has name recognition among Egyptians from his years at summits and international negotiations — while avoiding a role in the most hated tools of Mubarak's rule, such as the ruling party and security forces.

"He is from the old regime but he was at a distance from the president," said Hala Mustafa, a political analyst.

Now in the campaign, Moussa has tried to rebrand himself as an advocate for the poor, giving up his cigars and his classic ties and plastering lower-income districts with posters proclaiming him "the Knight of Egypt." Earlier this month, he used one of Cairo's most impoverished slums and a hideout for drug traffickers and thugs, Ezbat el-Haggana, as a backdrop for announcing the details of his political program.

Speaking from a podium set up in a potholed street, he vowed to set up a welfare system to protect the poor in the first 100 days of his administration — including a minimum wage, reform of labor laws and unemployment assistance — while increasing government investment to generate jobs and using his international contacts to draw financial aid and investment.

The race is an unpredictable one, with 13 contenders. The top hopefuls are Moussa, Morsi and former Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh — a moderate Islamist with pro-revolution credentials. Abolfotoh helps Moussa by splitting the Islamist vote but could also draw secular voters who find Moussa unpalatable. Also in the race is Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, who is widely viewed as too close to the old regime and the military but who could cut into Moussa's target constituencies.

Small swings in the vote could make a large difference in the first round of voting, set for May 23-24. If no one wins a majority, the two top vote-getters go to a runoff on June 16-17. A winner is to be declared on June 21.

Moussa's campaign plays down his "feloul" problem.

"People are not looking backward, they are looking forward. They are looking at the future," said Ashraf Sweliam, a top official in his campaign.

Only months before Egypt's uprising, Moussa told a television interviewer that he would vote for Mubarak if he ran for another term as president. When protests erupted against Mubarak in January last year, Moussa quickly announced his support for the revolution and appeared among protesters in Tahrir Square. But he mainly stayed in the background.

Throughout the tumultuous transition the past year, Moussa avoided criticizing the generals.

"If (Moussa) wins the presidency, it would only mean reinvention of the old regime, and no changes will take place under him," said Hossam Hamalawy, of the leftist Socialist Revolutionaries group. "All the advantages of the army will be untouched."

"Moussa has his support among Christians, who are terrified and who are in a state of paranoia, and also among middle class secular Egyptians who are also fearful of Islamists. He is their candidate."