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Wednesday, May 23, 2012
The Good Felool
If Amr Moussa wins Egypt's presidential election, is the
BY DAVID KENNER from BENI SUEF, Egypt
Moussa stood on a rickety stage, battling the summer heat and feedback from a
defective microphone, promising the Egyptian people the world. "We're
making a Second Republic, a renaissance for Egypt," he told the audience
of several hundred. "It is the time to rebuild the country, to fight
poverty and unemployment, which has resulted from mismanagement."
went on in that vein, ticking off the boxes of socioeconomic development:
health care, education, wages. Children played with posters featuring the visage
of the former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general and a
simple message: "Create jobs."
was the spectacle, not the speech, that counted. Moussa's campaign bus had been
joined by a convoy of honking cars as it entered the town; a makeshift band
played on the back of one pickup truck. Moussa's first stop was to the town's
mosques, where he prayed briefly among the crush of locals trying to get close
to him. Outside one mosque, the crowd thronged around the door in anticipation of
his exit, cheering expectantly. A man from the town exited before Moussa and
waved to the masses. "Thank you, thank you," he joked. "Yes, I
am the prime minister."
was just one stop in a frenetic campaign that has taken Moussa to seemingly
every village and hamlet in Egypt. The night before, Moussa had taken part in
Egypt's first-ever presidential debate, which concluded after 2 a.m. His
campaign bus left Cairo at 9 a.m., and he was still shaking hands and kissing
babies 12 hours later. "He's like the Energizer Bunny," said Ahmed
Kamel, his exhausted media advisor, at the end of the day.
Suef, a predominantly rural governorate of approximately 2.6 million people
south of Cairo, appeared at first glance to be a strange place for Moussa to
stump for votes. It is the home of Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed
Badie and has by and large stood behind his political vision. In Egypt's most
recent parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood's political wing won a majority
of the votes in the governorate, followed closely by the Salafi al-Nour Party.
there was Moussa -- an emphatically non-Islamist candidate and a consummate
establishment man in a country supposedly in revolution -- barnstorming across
the governorate. And it is working: Moussa remains the front-runner in the
presidential race set to kick off on May 23. A recent poll released by the
Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-linked think
tank, placed him at the top of the heap, garnering the support of 31.7 percent
of voters, while a Brookings Institution poll had him a close second behind
Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. If none of the candidates wins
more than 50 percent of the vote, the election will move to a runoff between
the top two vote-getters on June 16 and 17, where Moussa would likely be in the
strongest position to forge a winning coalition.
what does Moussa's success say about the state of Egypt's politics? The word
"revolution" has been thrown about for the past 16 months to describe
the upheaval in the country; a victory by the 75-year-old veteran of
internecine battles within Hosni Mubarak's regime and the old Arab order
suggests something closer to a course correction. Moussa, for better or worse,
is not the culmination of anything approaching a revolution.
Egyptians recognize this, and resent it. Dissenters trail the crowds of
cheering supporters at Moussa's every campaign stop. His earnest speech in Beni
Suef was interrupted when a youth of no more than 20 burst into the tent to
denounce him as felool -- a derogatory term for "remnants" of the old
who would only give his first name, was wearing a violet T-shirt featuring an
image of a skull adorned with a top hat and holding a rose between its teeth.
The words "King of Kings" ran below the skull. "He's a member of
the old regime; he will reproduce the old tyranny," he said outside the
rally, after being ushered out. "He will never change things. He will
steal from us like they did. He never did anything at the Arab League."
among us here would vote for Amr Moussa?" he yelled to the crowd of young
men who had assembled around him outside, trying to rally support. The crowd
stared at him quietly, in trepidation.
broken transition to democracy, however, has caused many to answer Mahmoud's
rhetorical question in the affirmative. Violent protests have racked the
country since Mubarak's fall, threatening Egyptians' sense of security and
bolstering support for law-and-order candidates. Meanwhile, the Supreme Council
of the Armed Forces, the ruling military junta, has pledged to unilaterally
amend the Egyptian Constitution before the presidential poll, bypassing the
elected parliament. In this chaotic environment, Egyptians have looked to
candidates who would restore the basics of governance before those who
represent an embodiment of last year's revolution.
not only Moussa who has benefited from this dynamic. Mubarak's last prime
minister, Ahmed Shafiq, has surged ahead in the polls, going from also-ran to
legitimate contender. And Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's former intelligence chief,
quickly jumped to the top of polls in April after throwing his hat in the race
(he was later disqualified) -- a fact attributed to his skill at bringing
security, if not democracy.
you had to sketch out an ideal transition, you probably wouldn't have the
military taking over and then the prime minister of the previous regime running
for president," said Nabil Fahmy, the dean of American University in
Cairo's School of Public Affairs and a former ambassador to the United States,
referring to Shafiq. "But this is where we are."
the absence of a political road map, Moussa has touted his ability to serve as
a bridge between the old regime and the hoped-for democracy. He has pledged to
serve only one term and to appoint a vice president who would represent the
youth. Once he sets the country on the right path, the pitch goes, he will pass
power to a new generation of Egyptian leaders.
has also tried to remake himself as a critic of Mubarak, whom he pledged to
vote for before the revolution. "The road was not easy with President
Mubarak at junctures," he said shortly after announcing his intention to
run for president. In a recent interview, he also made the case that the
decline of Mubarak's government began around 2005, when "every day it was
getting worse" -- an effort to draw a distinction from the final years of
the regime and his tenure there.
did eventually kick Moussa up to the toothless Arab League when the tensions
between the two -- largely over how hard to push their Israeli interlocutors --
became too great. "It was only a matter of time," said Fahmy, who
served as Moussa's political advisor in the Foreign Ministry for seven years.
"It was like two players playing different tunes. Mubarak was more
concerned with domestic issues and wanted Moussa to tone it down. But that
wasn't who he was."
Suleiman, Ahmed Shafiq, and Amr Moussa have never been considered part of the
corruption side of the Mubarak regime. But they were not vocal on the issue of
reform, no matter what they say," said Abdel Moneim Said, president of the
Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a member of the former
ruling party's Policies Committee. "I was there, and I never really found
one of them saying what's going on is wrong."
saw him a lot of times after he left the Foreign Ministry, very close with
Mubarak on a human basis," Said continued. "There were some
differences at some times.… But I think the difference between Mubarak and Amr
Moussa was quantitative -- it was not qualitative."
strategy for rebutting the felool charge is to present himself as an
experienced statesman. His decade-long tenure as foreign minister, from 1991 to
2001, earned praise from Egyptians for the aggressive manner in which he stood
up to Israel, particularly in a debate with then Israeli Foreign Minister
Shlomo Ben-Ami. To this day, the release of a schlocky pop song titled "I
Hate Israel and I Love Amr Moussa" is seen as the moment when Mubarak
became leery of Moussa's growing popularity and resolved to remove him from the
was good in two parts of diplomacy," Said noted of Moussa's tenure.
"Being nice and reconciling -- and at the same time he can be a son of a
bitch of the first order. He can be tough."
record bears that out. One of the defining political moments of Moussa's career
came during the 2000 Camp David summit, which ended in failure after Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat could not reach a
settlement on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During that
time, Moussa repeatedly and publicly batted away American requests to pressure
the Palestinians to reach an agreement. "Are we supposed to pressure
President Arafat to make concessions on Jerusalem?" he asked. "This
is not our job."
Arafat, Moussa proved willing to walk away from the talks, the failure of which
paved the way for the Second Intifada. "Let me put it this way: If there
is no deal, the fallout will be bad; in the case of a bad deal, the
ramifications will be worse," he said as the talks were ongoing.
Moussa is no irreconcilable foe of Israel. As with all other issues, he bobs
and weaves, positioning himself for the best possible deal. During a massive
campaign rally, he made headlines when he declared the 1978 Camp David Accords
"dead and buried," saying there is "no such thing" as the
agreement. The line bolstered his reputation among anti-Israel Egyptians, but
few noted that Moussa's claim was technically true -- it's the 1979
Egypt-Israel peace treaty that officially defines the relationship between the
two states. And fewer still dwelled on what Moussa said next: "There is an
agreement between Israel and Egypt that we will honor as long as Israel honors
has also proved himself capable of having functional, even friendly,
relationships with top Israeli officials. Israeli President Shimon Peres once
recounted the then foreign minister's attempt to get a look at the site of
Israel's suspected nuclear weapons program: "You know, once Amr Moussa …
asked me: 'Shimon, we are good friends; why don't you take me to Dimona and let
me have a look at what's going on there?'" (Peres politely demurred.)
campaign has released an 86-page political program that lays out technocratic,
good-government solutions to everything from Egypt's widespread poverty to
deficits in the pension system to the stagnation in the agricultural sector. It
is his past, however, that offers a clearer preview of his prospective
presidential administration: He would try to cut deals with Egypt's diverse
poles of power in an attempt to reconsolidate the fractured Egyptian state. He
would try to be the leader who went to Tahrir Square during the revolution and
the one who says the Egyptian military "has been in charge for 60 years --
you can't just lock them out and say goodbye."
will be no easy task. Egypt's next president will be forced to balance the
interests of a powerful military establishment with that of an
Islamist-dominated parliament, all the while meeting the Egyptian people's
sky-high hopes for economic development. If Moussa succeeds at restoring
stability to the Egyptian state, it will be the magnum opus of an official who
has spent a career perfecting the art of political compromise. Just don't call
it a revolution.
-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on
-David Kenner is an associate editor at Foreign Policy