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Amr MoussaAmr Moussa, right, then secretary-general of the Arab League, meets with Hamas leaders Khaled Meshaal and Mahmoud al-Zahar in Cairo in June 2009. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The disqualification of three leading contenders in Egypt’s presidential campaign has left the race with a new frontrunner – a Mubarak regime holdover whose political career was characterized by hostility towards Israel.

Egypt’s electoral commission on Tuesday confirmed its earlier decision to rule out 10 candidates, including Salafist cleric Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat Al-Shater, and former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

Until their disqualification the three, each controversial in his own right, were regarded as frontrunners in next month’s election.

Their departure has moved three other presidential aspirants into the spotlight – former foreign minister Amr Moussa, a Muslim Brotherhood replacement candidate Mohammed Morsi, and an Islamist ex-Muslim Brotherhood member, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh.

Of the three, Moussa has up to now fared best in opinion polls – an Al Ahram poll earlier this month placed him at the front of the pack, with 31 percent – and the removal of Suleiman is expected to give his campaign a further boost. The 75-year-old Moussa served as secretary-general of the Arab League for a decade until last year, and was Mubarak’s foreign minister for a decade before that.

In that capacity, he played a key role in the Middle East peace conference in Madrid in 1991, when published accounts showed him taken a harder line on Israel than did then President Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak for instance agreed with President George H.W. Bush that the issue of east Jerusalem in future peace negotiations should be discussed later, but Moussa insisted that “East Jerusalem is part of the occupied Arab territories and everything that applies to the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan should also apply” to the city.

Moussa later led an effort to press for Israel to relinquish its undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal, and in 2000 backed PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s refusal to compromise on the issue of Jerusalem during the Camp David summit hosted by President Clinton.

(In an unprecedented proposal, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat the Gaza Strip, around 95 percent of the West Bank, and parts of Jerusalem. The Temple Mount would remain under Israeli sovereignty, but the Palestinians would keep “custodianship.” Arafat refused, and the crucial talks collapsed.)

When the Palestinian intifada broke out weeks after the failed summit, Moussa urged Arabs to support the uprising, calling for the Arab states’ capabilities to be “mobilized.”

Moussa in 2001 became the inspiration for a song by a popular Egyptian singer entitled “I hate Israel (but I love Amr Moussa).” Some accounts attributed Mubarak’s decision to remove him from the foreign minister’s post and shunt him over to the Arab League to the president’s unhappiness with his popularity and growing profile. (Other songs by Shaaban Abdel-Rahim include one on Osama bin Laden, one opposing the Iraq war and one about the Mohammed cartoon controversy.)

Minimizes the Iranian threat

As Arab League chief, Moussa spoke out against the U.S.-led war to topple Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003. He was also critical of Washington for refusing to recognize and work with Hamas after the Gaza-based Palestinian terrorist group won parliamentary elections in 2006.

Moussa’s view on regional issues was commented on in an April 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable, later leaked by Wikileaks: “Moussa has publicly and privately minimized Iran’s threat, claiming that the Arab world should strengthen its economic and cultural ties with Iran,” read the cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. “Moussa believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict poses the greatest danger to the region, and has consistently pressed the U.S. to do more to stop Israeli settlement activity and advance the political process between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Despite his history with the ousted regime, Moussa describes himself as a liberal. His candidacy does not appear to have raised the same level of antagonism as have those of other regime-linked figures, including the now-disqualified Suleiman and Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander who served briefly as Mubarak’s last prime minister.

Even a law passed this month by the Islamist-dominated parliament attempting to prevent anyone who had served in the regime from running did not apply to Moussa, since it stipulated a 10 year cutoff for barring such figures, and the former foreign minister left the post 11 years ago.

Launching his election manifesto in a poor Cairo suburb Wednesday, Moussa pledged to uproot corruption and to build an economy that expands job opportunities and cuts poverty rates.

“There is no difference between Muslim or Christian, liberal, conservative or leftist,” he declared. “Egypt is in danger and its revolution is also in danger.”

On foreign affairs, he said as president he would work to ensure the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

During his campaign Moussa has occasionally criticized Israeli policies, a popular move in a country whose three decade-old peace agreement with Israel has never been widely embraced. (A Pew Research Center poll last year found 45 percent support for Hamas among Egyptian respondents, the second-highest rate – after Jordan – in the seven Muslim countries surveyed.)

In late March Moussa posted on his Twitter account a message saying that if Israel wished to be accepted in the region it must “give up [its] policy of intransigence, threatening, settlements and occupation and [allow] the establishment of the sovereign Palestinian state.”

The candidate has been vague on the future of the Egypt-Israel peace agreement, but has said that it is not sacrosanct.

Egypt’s presidential elections are scheduled to take place on 23 and 24 May, with a runoff in mid-June if no candidate wins a majority in the first round. The military council has pledged to hand over power to an elected president later in June.