In Egypt, a former Mubarak loyalist emerges as presidential possibility

February 5, 2011

CAIRO - The charismatic chief of the Arab League on Friday joined the throngs of protesters in downtown Cairo who have been clamoring for President Hosni Mubarak's resignation and hinted that he would consider running for the post.

Anti-government demonstrators mobbed Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, trying to take his photo. Some broke out in cheers urging him to run for president.

"I am available to my country," Moussa said in an interview broadcast Friday on Europe 1, a French radio station. "I am ready to serve as a citizen who is entitled to be a candidate."

Moussa is among a handful of figures with presidential gravitas whose names have begun circulating widely as Egyptians contemplate their country's first transition of power in three decades - and possibly the dawn of a democratic system.

After days of massive, bloody protests that turned parts of Egypt into a war zone, Mubarak announced this week that he would not run for reelection in the vote scheduled for September. He later said that his son Gamal would not be on the ballot, either.

How and whether a meaningful transition of power will take place remain open questions, subject to the sustainability of the anti-government movement and the amount of pressure the international community is willing to exert on Mubarak to step down.

Analysts said Moussa could generate more support than Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition figure and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"Amr Moussa is very charismatic," said Abdallah al-Ashaal, a former deputy foreign minister who served under him. "He is a media star, and when it comes to performance, he is very industrious."

Unlike ElBaradei, Moussa has not spent years in exile abroad.

Moussa was seen as a staunch Mubarak loyalist during most of the decade he served as foreign minister. He was apparently forced out in 2001 after his popularity - largely due to his pro-Palestinian stances - made him a threat to Mubarak, said Ashaal and some analysts.

Moussa's appointment in 2001 as secretary general of the Arab League, a 22-member forum representing Arab nations, gave him a plum post-government job and clipped his political wings.

An assistant said Friday night that Moussa was too exhausted to come to the phone.

When Mubarak appointed his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, as vice president last Saturday, protesters widely condemned the selection, calling it a ploy to keep the current regime in power. Some demonstrators at the time praised Moussa as a true alternative to Mubarak.

That sentiment is by no means universal, however.

Mohamed Habib, a leading member of the Islamist opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood, called him an unacceptable choice.

"Neither his experience nor his ties to the people and to the revolution qualify him for the position," Habib said. "Also, he is an inseparable part of the regime."

In his radio interview, Moussa extended an olive branch to the organization, saying, "We cannot ignore the political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition movement in the country."

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has played a relatively small role in the recent protests, has not put forward an alternative leader. Opposition leader Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak in 2005, is another prospective presidential candidate.

ElBaradei has agreed to act as a negotiator between the government and the disjointed, leaderless pro-democracy movement, but he has not laid out his long-term political ambitions.

Mohamed Eid, 22, a student at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, said the stifled political climate has left few viable options. As such, he said he would grudgingly support a new government headed by Suleiman, the vice president.

"The regime has been successful at silencing any opposition to the point that there are no real opposition figures," he said.

Bayoumi is a special correspondent. Correspondent Leila Fadel contributed to this report.

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