By Tom Perry
CAIRO (Reuters) - Veteran diplomat Amr Moussa talked economics and social justice when he hit the campaign trail for the Egyptian presidency with a string of interviews that flagged him as the front runner for the job.
Arab League secretary-general for the last decade, Moussa, 74, is the most prominent figure yet to declare his candidacy for the position from which Hosni Mubarak was toppled on February 11 after three decades in power.
The military, which took power after Mubarak was ousted, plans to hold a parliamentary vote in June to be followed by a presidential election six weeks later.
In a country where years of oppression have crushed political life, Moussa's high profile, oratory skills and charisma have given him a natural head start.
An online poll on the Web site of al-Ahram newspaper on Thursday showed him with a big lead over Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel prize-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
ElBaradei, a leading figure in the reform movement, has yet to say whether he will run on not. He is widely expected to.
"The Egyptian economy must move on two wheels: the free market and social justice," Moussa said in an interview with the Al Masry Al Youm newspaper, one of at least three he gave this week.
The economic policies of the last decade had resulted in "overwhelming poverty for the majority and obscene wealth for the minority," said Moussa, adding that growth had not benefited a large proportion of the population.
His move into economics marked a step away from the diplomacy that has defined his career. He was Egypt's foreign minister for 10 years until 2001, before being moved to the Arab League position which he will relinquish soon.
As foreign minister, Moussa was an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights as Cairo played a leading role in the Middle East peace process.
His popularity was widely assumed to be the reason Mubarak removed him from the foreign ministry in 2001. To some, the final straw for Mubarak seemed to be the release of the 2001 Egyptian pop hit, "I hate Israel, I love Amr Moussa."
The perceived differences between Moussa and his former boss will help him overcome suggestions that he represents the past.
Asked in the Al Masry Al Youm interview whether he was a part of the former administration, Moussa said: "I was not merely an employee who would be ordered and obey."
WORKING FOR MUBARAK WASN'T EASY
Moussa said he had expressed "the pulse" of the Egyptians. He declined to go into the details on his differences with the former president. "The road was not easy with President Mubarak at junctures," he said.
"There's only one name that has emerged as a front runner and that is Amr Moussa," said a Western diplomat in Cairo. "That is only because he's the only person, other than Ayman Nour, that has definitively stated his intentions," the diplomat said. Nour came a distant second to Mubarak in a presidential election in 2005, the first multi-candidate race Egypt had held.
Most of the foreign dignitaries who have visited Cairo since Mubarak was toppled have been to see Moussa at the Arab League. Most recently, he met Turkish President Abdullah Gul who told journalists Moussa had confirmed to him he would run.
Turkey and Iran are the two Middle Eastern states whose influence has grown while Egypt's has faded, Moussa said in the Al Masri Al Youm interview.
One of the main reasons for Egypt's retreat in recent years, Moussa said, was the leadership's desire to avoid irritating "major powers," an apparent reference to the United States -- a vital ally of Cairo since the late 1970s.
Discussing Egypt's ties with the United States, Moussa called for a "policy which allows you to stand in the face of American desire on any given issue." But ties with Washington must be "excellent and strong," he added.
(Additional reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore, editing by Peter Millership and Philippa Fletcher)