The Good Felool
If Amr Moussa wins Egypt's presidential election, is the revolution over?
Click here for pictures of the Egyptian presidential frontrunners.
BENI SUEF, Egypt — Amr 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.”
He 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.”
It 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.”
It 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.
Beni 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.
But 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.
But 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.
Many 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 regime.
Mahmoud, 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.”
“Who 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.
Egypt’s 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.
It’s 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.
“If 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.”
In 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.
Moussa 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.
Mubarak 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.”
“Omar 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.”
“I 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.”
Moussa’s 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 Foreign Ministry.
“[He] 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.”
The 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.”
Like 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.
But 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 it.”
Moussa 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.)
Moussa’s 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.”
It 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.
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.