CERNOBBIO, Italy (AP) — Amr Moussa, a leading candidate for the presidency of Egypt, said Friday that he had warned Hosni Mubarak days before his fall to call off security forces who attacked demonstrators but was ignored by an authoritarian ruler who seemed convinced he could ride out the popular uprising.
In an interview with The Associated Press at an economic conference in Italy, Moussa predicted that embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad would fall as well — and that democracy would spread across the region.
“I hope that all of them, including the Syrian regime, will understand that this is a historic trend. There’s no U-turn in it. People have spoken. They cannot get back to the normal life (of) the last 10, 20, 30 or 60 years,” Moussa said. “If they don’t, it’s a matter of time. … The situation now is untenable.”
Moussa said that as secretary-general of the Arab League earlier this year he encountered opposition to a tough hand against Syria because there was a desire to prioritize Libya’s descent into civil war — but there was also opposition to a direct Arab intervention in Libya. Instead the 22-member organization called on the world community to enforce a no-fly zone over the country and acquiesced to the NATO operation that last month succeeded in helping the rebels overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.
“Gadhafi was so adamant,” recalled Moussa, who left his League post earlier this year after a decade in the job and is now focusing on his run for president. “He was ready to pay any price to quell the opposition.”
In the case of Syria, he said, the Arab League would be more proactive: “I believe that the Arab League will vote (to) intervene — an Arab intervention to protect the population, I don’t know whether military or not. It was not available in the Libyan case, because I tried it and I did not succeed.”
“I do expect the success of the revolution in Syria.”
Moussa, who served Mubarak in the 1990s as foreign minister, acknowledged that the Arab Spring — as the uprisings in the region have come to be known — “surprised everybody.”
“But the event itself, a revolution against tyranny, was in the air. So many of us smelled it, expected it, predicted it, including myself.”
He said that in January, when Egypt’s unrest began, he told Mubarak: “People are angry and people are frustrated. Those forces have to stop.” Mubarak, he said, offered “no reaction … perhaps he was very much confident that his security forces could prevent this from happening.”
At least 860 people were killed in several weeks of violence, and Mubarak was ultimately toppled on Feb. 11.
Was Moussa comfortable observing the humiliation of his former boss, hauled before an Egyptian tribunal in August on a stretcher due to his poor health and confined to a defendant’s cage in public, sons by his side?
“I am comfortable with the fact that it is a real trial,” Moussa replied, looking less than fully comfortable. “Look, if you go and visit the poor areas in Cairo … you will see the amount of neglect, the result of corruption that that regime is responsible. This is too bad. Eight million in greater Cairo live in slums. … I get really angry especially on this score.”
Mubarak is charged with complicity in the killings of protesters during the uprising and with corruption. Mubarak has denied the charges, as have his sons, Gamal and Alaa, who are also accused in the corruption charges.
Moussa said Egypt’s new military government was doing the best it could with a transition phase and that he expected fully free presidential elections to be held in the first quarter of 2012. Parliamentary elections are expected in November.
Moussa rejected the fears of some in the West — that the peace treaty with Israel was in danger, or that Islamists might emerge powerful and that in a worst-case scenario Egypt might go the way of Iran, where the Shah was overthrown largely by secular forces who were then quickly undone by an Islamic revolution.
“I don’t think that the Islamic currents will have the majority,” he said. “We’ll have very … serious debate — it won’t be easy for any group to enforce certain kind of laws on the parliament.”
The urbane, 74-year-old Moussa, who is running near the top of most polls, conceded that he might have a problem with voters who see him as less than a breath of fresh air.
“They might think that yes, I (was) with President Mubarak. OK, so they can vote against me,” he said.
What would Egypt be like under a President Moussa?
“We have to fix poverty,” he said, adding that he would begin the task by sacking local officials who are corrupt and unqualified.
“I want democracy in the right sense of the word: basic human rights respected, separation of authority, independent public judiciary. … I want to see a vibrant Egypt, first correcting the situation internally and then getting back to its prestigious role in the region. … Once Egypt is a true democracy … it will be the engine of change across the Arab world.”
He said that change could even touch a country like Saudi Arabia, currently a proudly independent and tightly controlled monarchy where women cannot drive and individual rights are minimal.
“There might be differences between change in Saudi Arabia and change in Egypt, monarchies and a republic or something of that kind, but change will sweep the Arab world in my opinion.”
Maria Grazia Murru contributed to this report.