AL-SHURAFA, Egypt (Reuters) - To the crack of AK-47 assault rifles fired by supporters into the night sky, Amr Moussa pledged to build a “new system” of government if elected president to succeed Egypt’s ousted Hosni Mubarak.
But perhaps the biggest challenge for the former Arab League chief who was Mubarak’s foreign minister through the 1990s is to prove to skeptics that he is not part of the old system that Egyptians rose up against.
“The question is not old guard or new guard. The question is either you were part of the corrupt people that have done a lot of harm to the country or among the people who have worked and done their duty according to the highest standard they could do,” Moussa told Reuters in an interview.
“And I believe that I can do a lot for the country,” he said before stepping into a sleek black four-wheel drive parked at his Cairo headquarters and speeding along the Nile to break the day’s Ramadan fast at al-Shurafa, his latest campaign stop.
Moussa, 74, is one of more than 10 candidates who have said they will run in a presidential race that is likely to take place early next year. He is probably the best known of the candidates both abroad and to ordinary Egyptians.
But, so far, he is the only one who held a cabinet post under Mubarak. Others include Mohamed ElBaradei, best known for leading the U.N. nuclear agency and who launched a campaign against Mubarak before he fell, and Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, formerly a senior member of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
“It’s Amr Moussa!” shouted one villager as his small convoy rattled over potholed, littered streets lined with scrappy brick homes. A small channel, brimming with rubbish and acting like an open sewer, ran through the center of the village.
It is the kind of place Mubarak was never seen in, unless it was sanitized and decorated before a carefully staged visit.
Moussa was greeted by local notables and villagers gathered to honor the guest. Big patterned cloth screens were erected around the courtyard of the house, disguising the shabby surroundings. Supporters emptied rifles in the air sporadically through the meal and subsequent speeches by Moussa and others.
“Regarding the new or old regime, we are in a new situation now. There were good and bad. We will give him an opportunity,” said Sayyed Adel Eid, 30, who was visiting his family in Al-Shurafa for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
“He has lots of political experience,” he added, wearing the galabiya robe particularly common in Egypt’s countryside.
It was a typical refrain among those at the event. But on the other side of the road, more skeptical voices gathered.
“He is from the old regime,” 26-year-old Mohamed Dashour said. “We want someone new,” chimed in his friend, Hisham, 30. Others said those at the Ramadan meal event included many former members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), which collapsed and was then dissolved after the president fell.
Some stuck up for Moussa. But the debate highlights the task ahead for Moussa to show he will not bring more of the same.
Asked about what his presidency would stand for, Moussa said: “It means change ... The first rule is that our responsibility is to rebuild Egypt according to an agenda of three items, democracy, reform and development.”
Development is what many Egyptians want more than anything else. The uprising that ousted Mubarak on February 11 may have been galvanized by youth activists seeking a political sweep-out, but in places like Al-Shurafa demands are more basic.
“We don’t even have proper drinking water. Over there they are drinking mineral water from bottles because we don’t have sweet water,” said Ibrahim, 36, pointing to the place where Moussa and others had gathered to eat.
Villagers pointed to the broken roads and the lack of sewerage. They described the local school where there are 65 children to a class.
“We need an overall reform. This is a must because the country was going down the drain and we have not only to stop that but to reform things in a drastic way — education, culture and social files,” Moussa said.
In the last parliamentary election in 2010, a few months before Mubarak was driven from office, Mubarak’s party predictably swept back to power with a huge majority in a blatantly rigged vote. Al-Shurafa was no exception.
Mubarak’s party operated more like an institution of state than a political movement. His son, Gamal, headed the policy unit. It drew in business executives, local notables and others who saw it as root to power and patronage.
“All those over there are from the old regime. They are all members of the party,” said Ahmed Abdel Aziz, 29, speaking near Moussa’s campaign stop. He supports an Islamist party and works at the steelworks, whose chimneys spew smoke and rust-colored mills scar the horizon.
Moussa points out that he never joined the party and that when in the Arab League he was regularly at odds with Mubarak and other Arab rulers, several of whom are facing protests or, in some cases such as Libya and Yemen, armed rebellions.
An aide described how one of Moussa’s initiatives before he left the League in June was a call for an Arab “neighborhood policy” aimed at improving dialogue with countries surrounding the Arab region. He said Egypt opposed it in part because it would have included Iran, who Mubarak’s government distrusted.
The aide pointed to a common view that Moussa was moved out of the Foreign Ministry to the Arab League in 2001 because his popularity threatened to overshadow his president.
“There are lot of things I have done in the Arab League that shows that I was thinking differently than the regimes,” said Moussa, praised by many Arabs for his outspoken criticism of Israel and opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
But some analysts say Moussa may struggle to carve out a constituency between those who support the youth movements who call for a complete purge of the system and Islamists who are expected to back their own candidates.
“The Egypt political scene is divided ... Moussa does not fit into either category,” said political analyst Khalil Anani.
Moussa spoke out against a show of strength by Islamists in July when they gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square chanting slogans that Islam should be put before any constitution. But he has also met members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, as well as other political groups across the spectrum.
“There will be a place in the political landscape for the Islamists but I don’t’ think they will get the majority,” Moussa said. “The people will tell everybody who exactly they want. I believe it will be a civil state and we will be in better shape.”
Some analysts say Moussa has been seeking to draw support from big families able to swing swathes of voters in their area, a tactic Mubarak’s party employed. They add that winning former supporters of the party could help him build up numbers.
According to a poll by Abu Dhabi Gallup Center in June of those who said they would vote, 10 percent backed the NDP, second only to the 15 percent secured by the Muslim Brotherhood.
“These members want to shine again in politics after their party, the NDP, was dissolved and the parliament was dissolved,” said Mohamed Anwar, 39, engineer at Al-Shurafa. “Their way is Amr Moussa. But that does not mean Amr Moussa is bad.”
Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Heinrich