Cairo They make an unlikely trio of “founding fathers” for the new Egypt: One is a wily old-school politician, the second is a reticent scientist who won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the third is a hard-nosed business tycoon. But they are emerging as the country’s senior political voices and, interestingly, they share similar views about Egypt’s transition to democracy.
The three leaders are Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and head of the Arab League; Mohammed El Baradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency; and Naguib Sawiris, the chief executive of Orascom, a giant telecommunications company that is Egypt’s biggest private employer. Egyptian analysts describe the first two as potential future presidents and the third as a possible kingmaker. (Sawiris, a Coptic Christian, wouldn’t have a chance in a presidential bid, but he has just formed a powerful new political party.)
These senior figures didn’t make the revolution; that was the work of the young activists who gathered in Tahrir Square and refused to leave until President Hosni Mubarak resigned. But the three played important supporting roles. Each took a personal risk by coming to the square and supporting the demonstrators long before the outcome was clear.
Like America’s founders, they face a turbulent transition to democracy — and each one stresses that the political damage done by decades of repression can’t be undone in six months.
The three spoke frankly in interviews last week and, despite their different backgrounds, they expressed common concerns: All worry that the ruling military council is moving too fast toward parliamentary elections and a new constitution; they warn about rising Muslim-Christian religious tensions; they see a deterioration in security on the streets and want to rebuild the police; and they fear that a sharp economic downturn is ahead.
Their views converge on policy issues, too, which suggests that a moderate post-revolutionary consensus is emerging. They all favor a market economy, but one that protects and subsidizes Egypt’s poorest citizens; they support continued ties with America, including cooperation between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries; and they want a secular government that protects individual rights. Simply put, they all want Egypt to join the 21st century as a modern, prosperous democratic state.
Moussa, who plans to run as an independent candidate, is the early favorite in the coming presidential election. He carries the baggage of being a former member of Mubarak’s inner circle and having a reputation as a political wheeler-dealer, but those factors may also make him a force for stability and continuity. He’s likely to have quiet support from many in the military and from some in Mubarak’s old political party.
Moussa says he will run for only one four-year term, “just to put the country on the right track, protecting all the basics and creating conditions of stability and consensus.”
El Baradei is a saintly figure for many Egyptians, widely admired for his stand as IAEA director against what proved to be false American allegations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He was briefly placed under house arrest after he returned to Egypt in January to support the protests. He plans to run for president as the candidate of the new Social Democratic Party, which is supported by many intellectuals and Tahrir Square activists. His apolitical style is part of his appeal, but some worry that he may be too reserved to govern this turbulent country.
Sawiris is a canny businessman who built Orascom into what he says is the eighth largest telecommunications company in the world. In a country where many business tycoons are corrupt, he’s seen as independent and competent.
Sawiris is blunt in expressing the concern shared by all three that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups could hijack Egypt’s democracy: “My fear is that we will get an Iranian-type regime here, and it’s a real fear,” he says.
Moussa and El Baradei say Egypt needs time to learn how to make democracy work. This is why both urged “no” in the referendum on the military’s plan for quick elections and a patchwork temporary constitution. But the military’s plan, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, was approved by 77 percent of the voters.
El Baradei warns that in the short run, “we have a country that’s falling apart.” But like Moussa and Sawiris, he thinks a democratic Egypt will succeed if given time. “Every time you feel low, you think: What has happened here is so good, to see this part of the world waking up to the 21st century. It’s worth a try.”