Should Egypt’s next president be old guard or vanguard?

 By Khaled Diab

Amr Moussa is very popular with Egyptians, but should Egyptians play it safe with the best of the old guard or choose someone from the vanguard.

Saturday 12 March 2011

After years in the political wilderness heading up the glorified talking shop known as the League, Amr Moussa is back on the national scene in Egypt. Following weeks of public speculation and private deliberation, the popular and charismatic one-time foreign minister has announced his intention to run for Egypt's recently vacated top job.

“I am ready to nominate myself for the presidency. I see this as a duty and a responsibility,” he told the independent Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm.

Long slated as a possible replacement for by opposition figures seeking a bridge to , Moussa's candidacy seems to chime with the public mood. A recent poll revealed that almost half of Egyptians support the idea of him becoming Egypt's next president.

Although the vast majority of Egyptians aspire to transparency and good governance, the instability of recent weeks has created a certain amount of anxiety and apprehension, leading many to cite their immediate priorities as being “political stability” and “security for the masses”.

And as my wife argued in a debate in which I expressed my doubts about Moussa's credentials, the chief and former foreign minister could well be the best candidate to engineer a stable transition to democracy.

Although he is a member of the old guard, Moussa somehow kept himself immune to the rampant and rot which surrounded him, and his decade at the Arab League has kept him at a safe distance from one of the most unpopular governments in Egypt's recent history, the so-called “businessmen's cabinet” of ousted prime minister Ahmed Nazif.

During his decade-long tenure as foreign minister (1991-2001), Moussa was indisputably the most popular politician in Egypt and he was even described by Time magazine as “perhaps the most adored public servant in the Arab world”.

And in a country where public servants act like masters and are generally despised, being popular is a rare commodity indeed. So rare, in fact, that many Egyptians strongly believe Amr Moussa was “kicked upstairs” to the Arab League by Mubarak who was envious of and feared his popularity.

On a personal level, Moussa exudes charisma and gravitas, as I experienced on the one occasion I was in the same room as him, and has both the refinement of the polished career diplomat and a natural “common touch” – two hugely important ingredients for success, according to Rudyard Kipling. As foreign minister, he was admired for his dexterous management of Egypt's international relations, particularly with the Arab world, and his perceived straight talking on the .

Despite his obvious strengths, I cannot help but conclude that Moussa's weaknesses are far more troubling. Although he never personally indulged in the excesses of the former regime, he has been and remains a Mubarak loyalist.

While opposition figures have risked life and limb, or at least their reputations and security, to push for reform, Moussa has never openly criticised the old regime nor was he involved in any meaningful manner in the . During the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak, Moussa sounded more like Catherine Ashton expressing the 's dithering position when he urged all sides “to show restraint”, rather than a possible people's choice as their future leader.

Moussa as president could well provide the stable bridge to democracy that his supporters desire, and he has reassuringly suggested that he would only serve a single term: “The coming president of Egypt, whoever he is, must, in my opinion, stay for one term only … to lead the process of reform and put the country on the road to stability.”

Nevertheless, there is the chance, though he is not popular with the , that his popularity with the people and loyalty to the past would be used by the military to provide a democratic facade without real democracy.

Personally, I would back Amr Moussa as transitional president if the presidency was stripped of its power and transformed into a ceremonial position to provide Egypt with a unifying figure during its democratic transformation and a recognisable face to the outside world. But Moussa himself is opposed to Egypt becoming a full parliamentary democracy, at least for the time being.

Well, if not Amr Moussa, then who? Other names doing the rounds include former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei and the head of the al-Ghad party Ayman Nour. Though neither are popular candidates according to the poll cited above, ElBaradei has the advantage of being a non-partisan figure around whom the opposition have rallied, especially prior to the revolution, while Nour is young and has the credibility of having been at the forefront of Egypt's struggle for democracy which landed him in jail for having dared to run against Mubarak in the 2005 .

On the downside, after decades walking the corridors of international diplomacy, ElBaradei is something of a “Johnny-come-lately”, while many Egyptians fear that Nour and his liberal party will continue the neoliberal economic policies that have aggravated inequalities in Egypt.

Who will become Egypt's next president will, hopefully, be for all Egyptians to decide later this year. But with the range of established political figures being so uninspiring and in the spirit of the fundamental change awakened by the revolution, the conditions for running should be so eased that the young leaders of the revolution and even unknown citizens with well thought out platforms can run and perhaps become the next president.

Some view the absence of clear presidential candidates as a problem which, at some levels, it is. But if Egyptians choose someone to lead them who is not part of the political class, then they may just create a true “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – and perhaps even reinvent democracy itself.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 233 March 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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