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

 
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 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 Arab 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 Hosni Mubarak by opposition figures seeking a bridge to democracy, 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 Arab League 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 corruption 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 Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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 revolution. During the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak, Moussa sounded more like Catherine Ashton expressing the EU’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 army, 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 elections.

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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  • Amr

    Amr Moussa, a real one who
    appeared and laughed on us in the previous farce strange he wants to
    complete a new role in a new farce

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  • Ed Elletson

    According to http://thinkafricapress.com/egypt/amr-moussa-egypts-next-president it is looking likely that Amr Moussa will be voted in as the next president of Egypt. Do you not find it ironic that the Egyptians may end up voting in an ageing member of the former government after such a youth based revolution?

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  • Khaled Diab

    You have a point. But I mean endorsements for local constituencies, which are never very big. To run for president, the candidate should, as you say, be required to gather more signatures: says 50,000, or something.

    Thanks for helping to sha…pe the idea.

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  • Firas Mahmoud

    hmmm…should be higher in a country as large as Egypt?! With only a couple of hundred signatures as endorsement, you can easily end up with way too many candidates, which could cause electorial chaos and logistic nightmares…jack it up a bit and you got yourself a follower right here! 😉

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  • Khaled Diab

    Numbers? Don’t know. A simila number to now. Qualifications to run? The initial endorsment of say a minimum number of eligible voters (let’s say 200-300).

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  • Firas Mahmoud

    sounds too good to be true…how many candidates/members/number of seats in the mix? what qualifies any regular citizen to run for such a seat in parliament?

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  • KhaledDiab

    Agreed, Osama. Though the army didn’t like him in the bad old days, they probably see him as better than the troublesome ‘rabble’ demanding full freedom.

    Ahmed, are you comparing me to the author of the Green Book?! I think the only thing we… have in common is curly hair. Done properly, a reinvented political system can serve Egypt well since it will ensure that Egyptian politics serve Egyptian needs. We need to dare to think differently and not just “import” a ready-to-wear system.

    Firas, thank you, my man. Basically, the way I see it is that for parliament each candidate would run on their on programme and manifesto (a sort of one-person party). This would make it a parliament of independents. These members would forge (or not) temporary alliances on particular issues. For example, those MPs who wish to change the personal status laws to make them fairer to women would group together to push for a bill, while those who don’t could form an opposition alliance. Into this mix, would be thrown direct democracy in which people can vote directly on important bills, rather than just on who represents them for an entire term in office.

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  • Firas Mahmoud

    Love your optimistic article on reinventing democracy…some heavy political theorizing you’re laying down on our heads ya Khaled! 😉

    Could you perhaps give some concrete examples of the “flexible non-partisan representative democracy in wh…ich individual candidates run, whether for parliament or the presidency, on their own merit and personal manifesto”?

    Just to illustrate your point and to see if I understood it correctly…it kinda makes sense in my mind, but when I think about it seems like it might be lacking somehow or perhaps there could be some unforeseeable pit-holes/dangers to look out for? What do you think?

    Nevertheless, it’s an inpiring, thought-provoking and hugely well-written piece… thanks!

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  • Ahmed Mansour

    We’ve seen in Lybia what happens when you reinvent a political system. I think a normal democracy is just what we need.

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  • Osama Diab

    I’ve been thinking lately that Moussa is the Army’s candidate for presidency. He’ll be easier to strike deals with than say Elbaradei or Nour. Given his history of loyalty to the leadership, he’ll be the military’s good boy if he becomes president.

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  • Annah Foden

    Thank you for the link. Yes it is. People were so organised during the demonstrations and didn’t create chaos. They had no government and no official parties behind them.

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  • KhaledDiab

    Absolutely, Annah. I want more direct democracy in Egypt and no parties, but I don’t know if it’s realistic. http://chronikler.com/middle-east/politics/arab-model-for-democracy/

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  • Annah Foden

    Perhaps Egyptians should reinvent democracy and be again an ‘Arab model’!?!..

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