Egyptian presidential hopeful Amr Moussa, center, waits outside a polling station before voting on the first day of parliamentary elections in Cairo in November. The statesman’s campaign could be derailed by his long associations with the fallen regime. (Hossam Ali/AP)

Women leaned over balconies to catch a glimpse of Amr Moussa as he walked the streets of a middle-class Cairo neighborhood one recent afternoon. Little girls giggled and crowds gathered in awe at the celebrity in their midst.

But as boys sang “The people want Amr Moussa for president,” the candidate might not have heard the slur being spat by young men down the block. “Felool,” they called him, Arabic for “remnants” — a stark reminder that an effort by the 75-year-old to inherit the mantle of the Egyptian revolution could be derailed by his long associations with the fallen regime.

Until 2001, Moussa was a popular foreign minister under former president Hosni Mubarak; he then spent a decade as head of the Arab League. Those positions earned him international stature and a reputation as a statesman, but they have also inextricably linked him to the old guard in an Egypt looking for something new.

Still, it is Moussa who has emerged as a front-runner in the jockeying for Mubarak’s old post, even after a bloody year of upheaval across the region.

Although the military council running the country has yet to set an election date, Moussa’s presidential campaign could become an inflection point in Egypt’s unfinished revolution. His victory would show that Egyptians prefer some measure of continuity over radical change in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Moussa is in many ways the opposite of the new blood that youthful revolutionaries demanded last winter. The 18-day uprising that forced aside an autocrat was fueled by anger over corruption and the lack of opportunity in an impoverished country ruled by a small circle of wealthy elites — a circle that included Moussa. His critics call him an opportunist and accuse him of using name recognition to hijack the revolution.

Some activists refer to him as “Moussabarak” because of his close relationship with the ousted ruler. But many Egyptians long for the stability they say he would bring to the country’s top job.

“Amr Moussa could fill that space quite nicely,” said Abdel Moneim Said, director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Nearly everyone else among Mubarak’s old guard has become too politically radioactive and dogged by allegations of corruption to win broad appeal. At the same time, most of the secular movements born from the revolution have yet to win much of a foothold. And while Islamist candidates have fared the best in the early stages of parliamentary voting that began this month, many experts believe Egyptians may be looking for someone else when it comes to choosing a single leader.

In surveys conducted since Mubarak’s ouster in February, Moussa has consistently ranked highest among potential presidential candidates, suggesting that Egyptians regard him as a steady hand able to guide the country through its political and economic turmoil.

Walking a cautious line

Moussa has not apologized for his service under Mubarak and his predecessors, in a career that dates to 1958 and included postings at the United Nations. He insists that he wasn’t afraid to disagree with Mubarak as foreign minister from 1991 to 2001, and that he did so regularly.

“I was foreign minister of Egypt for 10 years, and I’m proud of that time, and then I was removed from that post because of the differences of views between myself and the president,” Moussa said in a recent interview, calling attacks on his service a smear campaign.

It remains to be seen whether Moussa can escape the taint of his associations, but he enjoys clout that his rivals lack. He’s intimately familiar with Egypt’s bureaucratic system, much of which still grinds away. He maintains long-term relationships with the country’s military leaders, is seen as a nationalist and is familiar to Washington and regional powers because of his diplomatic work.

As foreign minister, he worked with Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, defense minister at the time and the de facto president of Egypt since the military assumed control on Feb. 11. Analysts point to that as a sign that Moussa could be a preferred candidate of the ruling body, which is working to protect the military’s extensive economic interests.

Moussa has been walking a cautious line. He visited protesters in Tahrir Square during Egypt’s revolt, hoping to present himself as a potential future leader even as Mubarak clung to power. He spoke out against the recent violent crackdowns by security forces on protests, and he visits poor neighborhoods, all while maintaining what his aides say is a “working relationship” with the increasingly unpopular generals.

“He’s a candidate on whom they can agree,” said Khaled Fahmy, a prominent Egyptian historian, referring to the country’s military chiefs.

Moussa confirmed during the interview that he was offered — and turned down — the post of prime minister in a military-appointed caretaker government that was installed last month. His rival presidential contender and revolutionary favorite Mohamed ElBaradei also refused the post.

But Moussa accepted a less politically risky role last week, joining the military’s newly formed advisory council, which is expected to be a sounding board for the generals during the writing of a new Egyptian constitution in the months ahead.

His former spokesman at the Arab League, Abdel Alim el-Abyad, said Moussa’s relationship with the military and his popularity among regular Egyptians could propel him to the presidency.

“He has a strong relationship with the military, and he’s willing to make deals,” he said. “He’s a child of the regime.”

Moussa is also running one of the most robust campaigns. He was first to declare his intent to run for president, a decision his aides say he made days before Mubarak stepped aside. In the 10 months since the president’s ouster, he has worked to remake himself in the mold of a leader who can be trusted to honor the revolution.

His 12-to-15-hour days are packed with public appearances and meetings with groups across the political spectrum, from women’s rights groups to ultraconservative Islamists. He shows up at weddings in rural areas of the country, is pictured kissing babies in the local press, keeps his door open to youth activists and promises to battle entrenched corruption.

A long-standing ambition

Although his popularity is broad, it is by no means universal. Some critics and estranged colleagues say flashes of arrogance and pettiness sometimes emerge from behind the effortless charm and toothy smile Egyptians see on TV. By all accounts, including some from friends, Moussa exhibits a political star’s narcissism.

His former spokesman, Abyad, said Moussa sometimes held grudges when colleagues didn’t follow his orders to the letter. Abyad said he spent his days “feeding Moussa’s ego.” He briefed his boss four times a day on his public image and was tasked with compiling every survey he could find that mentioned Moussa’s popularity.

“The only cause Amr Moussa ever had was Amr Moussa,” Abyad said.

Moussa has had his eye on the presidency for more than a decade, even when anyone without the surname Mubarak had no chance, associates and critics say. In 2009, long before Mubarak’s ouster seemed possible, he hinted in an interview with an Egyptian newspaper that he might someday run for president.

If Moussa does become president, he will inherit a more fractured Egypt than at any time in recent history, with a possible Islamist mandate in parliament and youth-led revolutionary watchdogs that will probably object to his rule.

“He’s the leading candidate now. But activists will be able to construct a discourse about his past that could push him from the top,” said Ibrahim Houdaiby, 28, an Islamist youth activist and analyst of Islamist movements.

He calls Moussa’s claims of disagreements with Mubarak “romantic” revisionism and says Moussa can’t paper over his work with the old regime.

“People make choices in their lives, and he chose to be part of the establishment. Others did not,” Houdaiby said. “We got rid of Mubarak, but not the rotten political elite,” a sentiment largely reflected across the spectrum of youthful activists who see themselves as guardians of Egypt’s continuing revolution.

Moussa’s hopes are also clouded by Egypt’s highly uncertain political climate. The military council announced that the president would take power no later than July 1. But there is still no date for the election, there are no new campaign laws, and the parliament, tasked with appointing a body to write the constitution that will establish the powers of the office, is still being elected, in a multi-phase vote set to end in March.

It is unlikely that Moussa, a liberal proponent of Western-style democracy and a strong presidency, can capture the Islamist vote, a constituency that dominated the first round of parliamentary elections last month.

Instead, the strength of the Islamist vote may benefit Moussa’s closest contender, progressive Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who split from the Muslim Brotherhood this year. But Islamists’ powerful showing at the polls could also work in Moussa’s favor, causing liberals to rally around him as the strongest contender against Islamist candidates.

‘Egypt needs rebuilding’

Moussa was born into a powerful family, and many of his relatives served in parliament, which he first visited at age 10 with his maternal grandfather, a legislator. He says he knew by the time he graduated from law school that he wanted to be a government minister.

As foreign minister, Moussa’s public push to get Israel to sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty in the 1990s and his criticism of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land won him legions of fans at home. Egyptians sang his praises — literally — in Shaaban Abdel Rahim’s smash hit, “I Love Amr Moussa, I Hate Israel,” but his tough stance caused friction between Mubarak and Washington.

As Egyptians prepare to elect their first president since the revolution, many are looking for a strong leader who can command the world’s respect and bring stability back to Egypt, analysts say.

“We started our history with the pharaohs, and pharaohs were gods — not representatives of gods, they were literally gods. So, the Egyptian people believe in leadership, they need strong leadership,” said Raouf Saad, a diplomat who served under Moussa as foreign minister and is supporting his campaign.

Moussa points to his international experience as a way to jump-start global investments and the nation’s faltering economy. His campaign even portrays his age, a topic of contention among young revolutionaries, as a guarantee that he would be a one-term president.

“I believe I can bring back the image of Egypt that very much wilted in the last few years,” Moussa said. “Egypt needs rebuilding and needs someone to lead this rebuilding and to put the country on the right track, but not necessarily to follow it all the way through. Let the young generation continue doing the job.”