Diplomat seen as a solid leader, but too old to be Egypt’s president

He is a longtime diplomat known for being outspoken, once even the hero of a popular ballad. He is a former member of ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, but is disliked by the military officers who run the country. And he is an old man trying to appeal to the young.

At 74, Amr Moussa may seem an unlikely standard-bearer for any youth movement, and some observers view him as having been too quiet about the need for political and economic reforms under Mubarak. But many still see him as a strong candidate to become the next president of Egypt.

“A lot of people in Egypt think of him as a possible consensus candidate,” said Ezzedin Choukri Fishere, a former Egyptian diplomat who is close to Moussa. “Even those who dislike him say he is the best of the worst.”

Moussa served as Egypt’s ambassador to India and the United Nations before being named foreign minister in 1991, a post he held for 10 years before becoming secretary-general of the Arab League. In that post he had an influential role in the Arab peace initiative with Israel in 2002 and in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but less of a voice in Egypt.


He said last week, on the day Mubarak stepped down, that he planned to leave his job with the Arab League, many believe to start his campaign for the presidency.

During a visit to Cairo’s Tahrir Square before Mubarak resigned, Moussa reportedly said he was “available for my country.”

People who know him say Moussa is a populist and a “Nasserite,” a reference to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who imposed strict socialism on the Egyptian economy. His popularity is based on his blunt rejection of Israeli positions on Palestinians, which, according to Time magazine in 2001, sparked a popular song called “I hate Israel, but I love Amr Moussa.”

Some observers describe him as brilliant and charismatic even as they raise doubts about his potential for running the country.


“He is a friend of mine, but I will not vote for him,” said Abdel Moneim Said, the influential director of Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, the country’s premier government think tank. “He was part of the regime for 10 years, and I never knew him to say anything about reform. It’s about time that a new generation takes over.”

Khaled Fahmy, chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo, said Moussa’s age would work against him.

“I don’t think he would be a very viable candidate,” Fahmy said. “He is too old, and in the minds of the young, they don’t want any compromises. His popularity comes from another moment, that of an Egypt that didn’t yet have this confident voice that is gradually occurring.”

The new rules for presidential candidates in Egypt have not yet been set. Though the Egyptian military leaders — a council of officers whose names are not all known — have promised democratic elections, there is no constitution or election law.


Many here say it is too soon to tell whether the military, which has ruled Egypt since Nasser’s coup in 1952 and has huge economic investments, will allow Egyptians to vote freely.

The military has said it will hand over power within six months or whenever elections are completed, which some analysts said was a meaningful caveat. It expects to hold a referendum on election law changes in two months.

In a presidential straw poll of 350 people carried out in Egypt’s two largest cities during the recent popular uprisings, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that Moussa was supported by about 25%, compared with 17% for Mubarak Vice President Omar Suleiman, 3% for diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei and 1% for opposition leader Ayman Nour.

Illustrating the challenges before the military and any future president, Wednesday was another day of labor unrest in Egypt. About 24,000 workers at a giant government-owned textile factory in El Mahalla el Kubra were on strike, as were workers at the Suez Canal, municipal employees in Ismailia, workers at Cairo’s airport and a number of banks in Cairo and Alexandria. The actions came despite a call by the military to end labor unrest.


Fishere said the military officers who surrounded Mubarak see Moussa as a civilian and therefore a man from a different culture, a competitor who was too independent.

If there was any doubt of that Moussa confirmed his status as a competitor in 2009 when he told an Egyptian newspaper he was considering running for president in 2011, which could have pitted him against Mubarak or his son Gamal.

Though not at the forefront of the movement to end Mubarak’s regime — he vacillated as to whether the president should go immediately or hang on until September elections — he nevertheless appears to have considerably more name recognition and credibility on the street than ElBaradei or Nour, who ran against Mubarak in 2005 and was later jailed.

Others in the electoral mix could include the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood (though it says it will not field a presidential candidate), the youth movement, and the stew of tiny old-time opposition parties.


Edward S. Walker Jr., who worked closely with Moussa when Walker was U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1994 to 1997, said “he established an independent base” of support and that “people like him because he is not seen as a pawn of the U.S.”

If not Moussa, and if not ElBaradei or Nour, it is difficult to imagine who could emerge. Suleiman is considered a nonstarter by many because of his closeness to Mubarak.

“I am looking for someone who lives in the current world,” said Said of Al Ahram Center, someone committed to a modern economy and human values. “In the next few months, this leader might appear.”