Friday, March 11, 2011

Amr Moussa: Meet Egypt’s Next President?

By Barry Rubin

It's now official. The Egyptian presidential election will pit Amr Moussa against Muhammad ElBaradei. It's hard to see a third candidate emerging with a real chance of being elected. Come to think of it, thinking that ElBaradei has a chance of winning is also hard to believe.

In May 2007, here’s how al-Jazira prophetically began its story on Amr Moussa:

“Time magazine describes Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League as `perhaps the most adored public servant in the Arab world’; others claim he is the only official most Egyptians would elect as president if they had the chance. It was his goal from day one….”

Now, Moussa is openly pursuing this goal as a candidate to be president of Egypt. Here's the beginning of his campaign. He’ll probably win. This is remarkable for two reasons. First, Moussa worked closely with deposed dictator Husni Mubarak for decades. He was clearly part of the old regime yet what distinguished him was his more outspoken anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Israel rhetoric.

Indeed, so clear was this factor that in 2000 a wildly popular song declared: "I Hate Israel….I love Amr Moussa." Due to his stridency, Mubarak fired Moussa but, their relations always remained pretty good, backed him to be the head of the Arab League, a job he took in 2001. 

Moussa began his campaign with a moderate statement explaining that if Egypt wants to develop it would be foolish to get into a war with Israel. That makes sense. But an actual war is not the likely problem.

Rather, Moussa knows well the uses of anti-American and anti-Israel demagoguery as a way to be popular in Egypt. If he wins the election he will owe his victory in large part to his harping on these themes. That could be a problem.

Second, Moussa represents the ideology supposedly thrown by the revolution into the dustbin of history: Arab nationalism. That is the doctrine that has ruled Egypt since 1952 and which has faced increasing rivalry from Islamism and moderate democratic reformism. Ironically, those two supposedly incompatible worldviews are aligned in the presidential candidacy of Muhammad ElBaradei.

No doubt the two candidates will compete in proving that they are the more anti-Israel, anti-American choice. But the Muslim Brotherhood has made a mistake or, rather, it can’t really be blamed for choosing the wrong man last year since, at the time, Moussa was totally backing the Mubarak regime.

Will anyone note the irony of a revolution against the regime picking a leading figure from that regime as president? And his distinction is not any love of democracy or moderation but a hatred of the democratic West and Israel coupled with militancy.

Five factors will thus come together to favor Moussa: ElBaradei is not popular, the majority of Egyptians don’t want Islamism at present (though a very big proportion do), Moussa is popular, those who supported Mubarak will  also vote for him, and many (most?) Egyptians would still choose nationalism and Arab identity over either Islamism or liberal pragmatism.

Now if I had to choose--and this might not help him--I'd vote for the radical nationalist Moussa who would be a headache and possibly a disaster instead of the nominally liberal democratic ElBaradei who would pave the way for the Brotherhood's growing power and a definite disaster.

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