Islamist candidate tries to bridge divide between religious and secular in Egypt

April 5, 2012

— The speakers who warmed up the crowd for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh’s campaign launch this week went well beyond the standard Koran recitations and flowery poetry employed by his fellow Islamist candidates in Egypt’s crowded presidential race.

There was the unveiled, red-haired actress who gushed about Aboul Fotouh’s honesty. A liberal talk show host described him as courageous. And the son of a prominent TV cleric said Aboul Fotouh would “gather all of Egypt together from the right to the far left.”

With Egyptians barely a month away from picking their first president since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year, Aboul Fotouh is positioning himself as the only candidate capable of bridging the country’s seemingly yawning divide between Islamist and secular. The question is whether consensus has much appeal in the polarized new politics of Egypt.

Aboul Fotouh is a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s dominant Islamist group, and is running as a reform-minded independent. Although the race includes candidates who have not made religion a central part of their campaigns, it is increasingly shaping up as a choice among various strains of Islamist thought. Of those, Aboul Fotouh represents perhaps the most moderate alternative.

On the other end of the spectrum has been Hazem Abu Ismail, a favorite among Saudi-influenced hard-liners known as Salafists, who once remarked that unveiled women should not call themselves Muslims. Abu Ismail was effectively disqualified Thursday, after the election commission determined that his mother had been an American citizen.

Aboul Fotouh’s biggest rival for the votes of moderate Islamists is likely to be the Brotherhood hopeful, Khairat el-Shater, who was added to the ballot last week after the group broke its long-standing pledge not to field a presidential candidate.

Ironically, Aboul Fotouh was ousted from the Brotherhood after decades of membership because he wanted to run for president. Amr Moussa, the liberal former foreign minister and Arab League chief, is also a contender, though his ties to the old regime make him anathema to many Egyptians.

So far at least, Aboul Fotouh is well behind in the polls. But he is betting that his seemingly incongruous coalition of supporters — liberal youths, Coptic Christians who fear the rule of a hard-line Islamist, and Islamists disenchanted with the Brotherhood — might add up to enough votes to propel him to victory. Because he can’t afford to offend any of those blocs, his message has been broad and his exact agenda difficult to discern.

“Real sovereignty belongs to the people, and the only master in this nation are the Egyptians, with no first man or first lady,” Aboul Fotouh told the cheering crowd at his campaign kickoff in Cairo’s Azhar Park, his face beamed onto jumbo screens. “The only masters are the people, and, regardless of belief, gender, color or social class, people are equal before the law.”

A sense of the future

Although Aboul Fotouh’s platform may be vague, analysts say he represents something important as Egypt struggles to transition to democracy after decades of autocracy.

With Islamists controlling two-thirds of the newly elected parliament, there is little doubt that religion will play a more active role in Egyptian public affairs. But in Egypt, and in countries across the Middle East, people are wrestling with the question of what living in an Islamic democracy really means.

“In the long run, his campaign can be a nucleus for a new political movement that is center-right,” said Ashraf el-Sherif, an adjunct lecturer at the American University in Cairo who studies Islamist movements. “It’s a new genre to the left of the Muslim Brothers. Liberals are saying, ‘If we’re going to have an Islamist candidate anyway, he’s the best one.’ He’s capable of including reformist Islamists, moderate secularists and Copts who see him as the better of the ‘Islamist evils.’ ”

Aboul Fotouh has said publicly that he believes women and Coptic Christians should be allowed to hold top government positions in Egypt, including the presidency, a stance the Brotherhood has rejected. He also wants to do away with the requirement that Coptic communities need presidential permission to build a church, said Ali el-Bahnasawi, his media coordinator. If elected, Aboul Fotouh would propose a law that guarantees all religions the right to build houses of worship without excessive government limitations, Bahnasawi said.

But some remain skeptical. The leftist Social Democratic Party initially turned to Aboul Fotouh as an Islamist they could support.

“We were very much inclined to vote for him and to support him because he seems reasonable and I knew him for many years personally,” said Mahmoud Abou el-Ghar, the head of the party.

But Abou el-Ghar said that when he asked for a guarantee that Aboul Fotouh would appoint as his two vice presidents a liberal and a woman or a Christian, the candidate declined. Aboul Fotouh’s office did not comment about that account, but it said he has a policy of not making promises in exchange for endorsements.

A confident Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing does not seem particularly concerned about the challenge Aboul Fotouh might pose to their candidate. On Thursday, Shater registered his candidacy, with thousands of Brotherhood supporters cheering him in the streets.

“Aboul Fotouh is, of course, Islamist, but he is also adopting views of liberal and non-Islamists more than any other Islamist candidates,” said Amr Darrag, a member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. “Khairat el-Shater is clearly in the middle — representing the moderate Islam and expressing the views of probably most Egyptian people.”

At Aboul Fotouh’s rally this week, his fans included women wearing skinny jeans and men with distinctive prayer marks on their foreheads. Mona Hossam sported a black veil across her face, in the style favored by the most conservative of Egyptian women.

She might have preferred a more outwardly religious candidate such as Abu Ismail, but she said such a president could be a disaster for Egypt’s fragile religious, ethnic and political balance.

Referring to Aboul Fotouh, she said: “His politics are moderate. With him, the world won’t turn upside down. If we elect an Islamist in every sense of the word, there will be strife.”

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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