Not many Arab politicians could win a popularity contest, even among their own constituents. But they're writing songs about former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, who in May became secretary-general of the Arab League. "I hate Israel," goes a chart topper of the same name by Egyptian crooner Shaaban Abdel Rahim. "But I love Amr Moussa." When the tune hit the Egyptian airwaves several months ago Moussa's standing soared. You might think that such Israel-bashing lyrics would cause some discomfort for an official whose job at the time involved his country's ultra-sensitive diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. "I was kind of gratified," says Moussa, leaning back in his Cairo office, shirt collar open, puffing on a Cuban cigar. "Why should it bother me? It is a message: we can't accept injustice done to the Palestinians."
That is the kind of undiplomatic talk that grates on Israel and the West but has made Moussa, who turns 65 this week, perhaps the most adored public servant in the Arab world. A career diplomat who held posts in India and at the United Nations, he is a man as famous for his hearty laugh as his explosive temper. In 10 years as Egypt's Foreign Minister, he sharply criticized U.S. support for Israel and Israel's treatment of Palestinians in interviews, speeches and finger-wagging lectures to visiting envoys. (His rows with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are legendary.) Such was the public's adulation that when President Hosni Mubarak replaced him last May, Cairo's rumor mill had it that Mubarak blamed the "I love Amr Moussa" lyrics for stealing his spotlight. Moussa's candidacy to run the Arab League, a body notorious for its internal squabbling, was endorsed by the unanimous vote of all member states, including both Iraq and Kuwait, whose mutual enmity from the Gulf War has yet to abate.
From his new office at the Arab League headquarters just a few blocks south along the Nile from the Foreign Ministry, Moussa is determined to transform the organization into a powerful voice of Arab opinion. He wants to toss out lifetime bureaucrats and reinvigorate the 800-strong staff. Although he says that the Arab League must address wider issues, from economic growth to solidarity with Arab-Americans, the Palestinian cause will continue to dominate his agenda. He sees the conflict as a source of regional terrorism, perhaps even a factor in the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Says Moussa: "People will not calm down unless and until the Palestinian question is fairly resolved." That statement will cause anger in Israel. There will be grimaces in Washington, too. In Cairo, though, they will just go on singing a favorite song.
TIME: What explains some Arab street reaction showing satisfaction with the September 11 terrorist attacks on America?
Moussa: I was really sad about what happened in Manhattan, where I lived for so many years, and in Washington. I strongly condemn it. If there are some expressions [of satisfaction], those are eruptions that do not at all represent the overwhelming majority of how Arabs feel and reacted. Those people have been living in refugee camps for decades. That shows what frustration will do. The Palestinian problem has to be solved.
Moussa: Israeli policy is to dupe Palestinians, Arabs and the world by saying, "We want peace," but then they build [Israeli] settlements, hit the Palestinians, use F-16 war jets, use Apache helicopters. And no powerful country intervenes. A continuation of the same policy creates a lot of bad blood, anger, frustration. It is in the interest of nobody, of no country, of no diplomacy, that such a situation continues. Now is the time for a reassessment of American policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
TIME: Don't you really mean "change" the policy?
Moussa: The assumption that Arabs will accept an Israeli version of peace is a wrong assumption. [Not] Yasser Arafat nor any Palestinian leader will dare sign one document interpreted as a surrender. What is possible is a fair settlement, according to U.N. Resolution 242. Who led the drive toward peace in accordance with certain principles? The United States. It should continue.
TIME: What are the roots of the anger?
Moussa: The new world order is not pleasing anybody. There were demonstrations in Seattle, Durban, Genoa, Bangkok. The way things are being done, the policy of double standards, is doing a lot of harm. It is not only the Palestinian issue. Everybody is protesting.
TIME: So it's all America's fault?
Moussa: I wouldn't say so, but since America is the most powerful country, the only superpower, it is more responsible than others. Everybody looks to America to intervene, achieve peace, exert pressure, convince governments to do this or that.
TIME: If the terrorists were Arabs, how would you explain what they did?
Moussa: [U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell says that they will produce evidence. If it was Arabs or Muslims, they don't represent the Arab or Muslim people, but we have to see why. First, there is the frustration, the sense that a major injustice has been done to the Arabs. Israeli policy is challenging the dignity of the Arab man. And nobody cares. But nothing in what I say justifies the attacks. We condemn it.
TIME: Are you worried that America's retaliation may turn out badly?
Moussa: The situation is very fluid, very fluid. The [U.S.] goals are still not very clear.
TIME: Do Arabs accept America's plans to retaliate?
Moussa: "Accept" is not the right word. But we understand the American predicament and the enormity of what happened. The President of the United States has to do something to punish the perpetrators.
TIME: Will the Arab states cooperate?
Moussa: We are ready to cooperate as much as we can. But [retaliation] should be done in a way that does justice. You should retaliate against a group that has been proven to be the perpetrtators. If they want our help concerning military action, military bases, soldiers or anything of the sort, then the world has to be consulted. The best thing, if there is evidence, is to get bin Laden and try him. Attacking the Afghans will harm a lot of innocent people which we want to avoid.