Egypt’s Inevitable New President?

With Egypt’s presidential elections just around the corner, the former foreign minister is leading in the polls, and many across the country seem tired of revolutionary politics. Author: Alastair Beach

Not far from the banks of the Nile, in the Egyptian city of Luxor, located some 400 miles south of Cairo, a tour guide stoops down beside his frail horse. Pointing to its tattered horse shoe, the man, who asked to be identified only as Mahmoud, explains that he has to buy new ones every two weeks; now he is struggling to afford replacements.

“This used to be full, but now it is completely empty,” he says, pointing to his wallet. “The revolution is to blame.”

As in many Egyptian tourist towns, Luxor’s economy witnessed a steep decline following last year’s uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the country’s longtime strongman. Mindful of the reports of violence emerging every day, tourists have stayed away en masse. Official government data released last month showed that the number of tourists during the first quarter fell by nearly a third compared with the same period last year.

In a town where more than 80 percent of the population relies on tourism to make a living, many residents say that the revolution has been an unmitigated disaster.

“I’ve been working here since 1988 and I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Sameh Roshdy, who works as a travel agent.

With Egypt’s first presidential elections since the Arab Spring just around the corner, many in Luxor and elsewhere across the country have grown weary of revolutionary politics. And as they go to the polls on May 23, a growing number of Egyptians who initially supported the uprising appear to have grown tired of the protests and sporadic outbursts of violence that have plagued the country since last year’s demonstrations began.A spring survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, published this month, found that only 53 percent of Egyptians said they were “satisfied” with the direction their country was going. That’s 12 percent fewer people compared with the same period last year. Fewer than half of those questioned said things had improved since Mubarak left office, though 52 percent of Egyptians still expressed “optimism” about the future.

In Luxor, many voters appear to be lending their support to Amr Moussa, 75, the country’s former foreign minister. One Cairo-based polling organization has Moussa leading all presidential candidates with 41 percent of the vote.

The survey, by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, is by no means unanimous. A separate poll conducted this month by the independent newspaper Al Masry Al Youm also put Moussa ahead, but with only 17 percent of the vote—just a notch above of Abdel Moneim Abul Fatouh, an Islamist reformer and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet in Luxor and the surrounding area in Upper Egypt, Moussa appears to be king. He has paid numerous visits to the region since Mubarak fell, delivering speeches to the faithful and glad-handing family chieftains.

According to Al-Ahram pollster Sobhi Essaila, Moussa—a strong critic of Israel—is now far ahead of his rivals among voters in southern Egypt. “Our data shows he is clearly the biggest candidate here,” he says, adding that one of the main reasons was the former foreign minister’s prominent public profile.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, many voters in Luxor appeared to confirm this sentiment.

“He understands our country,” says one local Moussa supporter, who works on a ferry boat.

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Another supporter, who works in a small roadside snack stand near the Temple of Amun at Karnak, agreed, saying Moussa’s political experience makes him ideally suited for the job. “He has the strength to hold Egypt together,” he said.

For many activists who gathered last year in Tahrir Square to help bring down the old regime, Moussa’s strong connection to the previous government is exactly what makes his popularity so disturbing. Despite assurances by Egypt’s ruling military generals that the elections will be free and transparent, many have expressed their doubts that the old hands will indeed give up power.

During a marathon presidential TV debate last week, for instance, Fatouh, Moussa’s closest competitor, made a point of noting how the former foreign minister had clawed his way to the highest echelons of power under Mubarak. In one especially barbed exchange, he turned to his opponent and said: "I'd like to ask Mr. Amr Moussa, as a member of the past regime ... that people revolted against, if he can become part of the solution?”

The point was clear: when it comes to politics in Egypt, you don’t climb up the slippery pole without greasing a few palms first.

Yet Moussa’s supporters believe his political pedigree doesn’t disqualify him to lead, and that his candidacy provides a bulwark against Islamism, a political movement that has gained considerable power since the Arab Spring began. “Egypt wasn’t born on Jan. 25,” said Mohamed Osman Soliman, Moussa’s campaign manager in Luxor, referring to the date of last year’s uprising. “We’re all part of the old regime.”

Sort of. For decades, the Mubarak government banned the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most powerful political force. The group—the foremost pioneer of political Islam—built its power base among the poor and middle class by offering a variety of social services. In Luxor, its candidates ended up taking five out of six seats in Egypt’s parliamentary elections.

This time around, however, the Brotherhood does not appear to be faring as well. According to several different surveys, Mohamed Morsi, the party’s candidate, is polling only in single figures. Following its triumph in elections to the legislature, the group has steered itself into heavy political turbulence. Its leaders broke a pledge last year not to field a candidate for president, while Brotherhood representatives in Parliament later alienated opponents who believed they were trying to strong-arm Islamists on the issue of creating a new constitution.

Despite his Islamist background, Fatouh appears to have enormous crossover appeal among Egypt's liberals due to his reformist stances on women and Christianity. Even so several weeks ago, the Salafis, the country’s most conservative group of Islamists, announced they would endorse him.

Still, at least some analysts believe that a victory for Moussa is inevitable.

“Amr Moussa is leading in the polls,” says Mohamed Kadry Said, a political analyst for the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“People don’t have a bad memory of him.”

If anything, Moussa’s political experience appears to be playing to his advantage. According to Bassem Samir, executive director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, an NGO working to promote political reforms, the former foreign minister’s political background could prove critical in negotiating the tangled web of military and security interests who control the government.

“Egypt is a black box,” he says. “Nobody knows what is inside. What is the role of the intelligence services? What is the opinion of the military council? What is the role of the Army? I think maybe Amr Moussa … [has] the key.”