QANTARA, Egypt — Former Arab League chief Amr Moussa campaigned for the votes of influential tribes on Sunday in his battle for Egypt's presidency against well-organized Islamists, who are his main rivals in this month's election.
Pledging to create a new economic zone along the Suez Canal and invest in neighboring Sinai, where Bedouin tribes have long complained of neglect, Moussa was hailed by tribal leaders who claim followers stretching along Egypt's eastern seaboard.
In traditional fashion, the 300 or more people who listened to Moussa's lunchtime speech in Qantara, on the west banks of the canal, were treated to huge trays of rice with slabs of meat on top served by a troop of waiters under colorful awnings.
Voting starts 23 to 24 May in the election to choose a new president after Hosni Mubarak was turfed out of office last year. None of the 13 candidates is expected to win outright, setting the stage for a second round vote in June, although Moussa and his Islamist rivals are viewed as front-runners.
"We swear an oath of allegiance to Amr Moussa, the [next] president of the Republic of Egypt, because of his broad political experience," Farag al-Muteir, a Swarka tribal leader in flowing robes and headdress, told the gathering.
The Swarka tribe hosted the event and at least two more senior members of other tribes stood up to pledge their support.
The backing of a tribe or notable can tip the balance in favor of a candidate locally in parliamentary elections and although tribal votes have far less impact in a presidential race on the national stage, they may still prove valuable as Moussa battles with two Islamist networks who back his rivals.
The Muslim Brotherhood is fielding Mohamed Morsy and hardline Salafi Islamists said last month they would back Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh. As proof of their formidable voting machine, the Brotherhood and Salafis swept parliamentary polls.
"All votes are important," Moussa told Reuters on his campaign bus when asked about his bid for tribal support. "This is a big bloc of votes and big bloc of people. I myself have [long] relations with them."
Moussa said Egyptians with tribal loyalties numbered some 12 million in the nation of 80 million people. There are no precise figures and analysts point out that, even if the number is that high, many voters who hail from tribes will make their own choice rather than blindly follow their leaders.
But 75-year-old Moussa, who has been campaigning for months, far longer than most other candidates, has trekked up and down the country, including heading into the Sinai desert and southern Egypt where tribes and big families still have clout.
Some are following their elders' lead.
"There are two reasons I chose [Moussa]. The sheikh said so and we found Moussa has a clear vision," said Sayed Abdel Karim, 45, one of the Swarka, reflecting a view common among those who turned up.
But others remained undecided. Ibrahim Youssef, 30, said he would not back an Islamist but is deliberating whether to pick Moussa or Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, who is running and who like Mubarak was a former air force commander.
Moussa served as Mubarak's foreign minister through the 1990s before moving to the Arab League, but he has brushed off charges that he is part of the old order, often leveled against him by Islamist opponents. He has highlighted differences he had with Mubarak on regional and other policies.
Moussa, well-known abroad from his Arab League role, has sought to paint himself as the only candidate with the stature and experience to lead Egypt after 15 months of political turmoil and economic upheaval. In a newspaper interview, he said Egypt needed a statesman not a man of religion at the helm.
Asked about this statement during Sunday's campaigning, he said Egypt didn't need a president who would answer to a higher religious leader "like Iran" where the elected president answers to a supreme leader, who is not picked by a popular vote.
Both Islamist candidates dismiss such a characterization.
Moussa said he believes he could secure the more than 50 percent of the vote needed to give him an outright win in the first round. That would avoid a runoff where, if he was one of the top two, his rival would almost certainly be an Islamist with the Islamist vote united against Moussa.
But a first-round victory would be a challenge. During Moussa's campaign tour on Sunday — sporting posters of a beaming Moussa and his campaign slogan "We're up for the challenge" — the Brotherhood's well-organized support was also on display.
On the highway where Moussa's bus drove, a row of 17 people stood by the road at intervals holding up Morsy posters.
Next to one of Sunday's campaign venues, in the village of Bayadiya, a Brotherhood supporter insisted Egypt needed a religious man in charge, like Morsy, and described Moussa as one of the "feloul" — an Arabic word meaning "remnants" of Mubarak's era. He was quickly silenced by Moussa supporters nearby.
Although polls have put Moussa ahead, helped by his broad name recognition, predicting an outcome is difficult in a nation that will be holding its first free vote for a president in its history after the rigged elections of Mubarak's era.
Yet some votes are shifting Moussa's way. Some of the floating voters who picked Brotherhood members for Parliament are already fed up with how they have performed.
Mahmoud Mohamed, 45, said he would back Moussa after voting for the Brotherhood in the parliamentary race.
"I thought they [the Brotherhood] would change the ways of the old party but it turned out they are acting the same," he said, referring to the former ruling National Democratic Party.