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Thursday, May 10, 2012
A Man for All Seasons
Egypt's presidential front-runner is a fascinating political
chameleon. But does he have enough real support to win the upcoming election?
BY SHADI HAMID
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh
January, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was a long shot to become Egypt's next
president. When I walked into the Islamist candidate's basement in a far-flung
Cairo suburb -- which was doubling as a "backup" headquarters -- it
made me think back to the early, insurgent days of Barack Obama's campaign,
when Hillary Clinton was still the presumptive Democratic nominee. The
basement, with its large spare rooms, was packed with young volunteers. It had
a chaotic, bustling feel. Aboul Fotouh's supporters may have hailed from
radically different backgrounds, but they believed, above all, in the
candidate. They wanted to transcend the old battle lines of
"Islamist" or "liberal" and reimagine Egyptian politics in
those grand ambitions mean in practice is, at times, unclear. As Aboul Fotouh
has risen to front-runner status in the first ever competitive presidential
election in Egypt's history, he has become the Rorschach test of Egyptian
politics. Liberals think he's more liberal than he actually is. Conservatives
hope he's more conservative.
an understatement to say that the Aboul Fotouh campaign is a big-tent movement.
A former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and, for decades, one of Egypt's most
prominent Islamist figures, he has become the standard-bearer of many of the
young liberals who led Egypt's revolution -- including Google executive Wael
Ghonim. He is also, however, the preferred candidate of the country's hard-line
Salafi groups, including the al-Nour Party and its parent organization al-Dawa
al-Salafiya, one of Egypt's largest religious movements. This is all the more
impressive considering that, unlike the United States or most European
countries, the primary political cleavage in Egypt has little to do with
economics and much more to do with religion.
Fotouh's success stems in part from his ability to neutralize this religious
divide. One of his messages -- and one that has appeal for liberals and
hard-line Islamists alike -- is this: We are all, in effect, Islamists, so why
fight over it? As he explained to a Salafi television channel in February, "Today
those who call themselves liberals or leftists, this is just a political name,
but most of them understand and respect Islamic values. They support the sharia
and are no longer against it." In a creative attempt at redefinition,
Aboul Fotouh noted that all Muslims are, by definition, Salafi, in the sense
that they are loyal to the Salaf, the earliest, most pious generations of
Fotouh is able to make this argument and make it sound convincing, in part
because of who he is. He is the rare figure who has been, at various points in
his career, a Salafi, a Muslim Brother, and, today, a Turkish-style
"liberal Islamist." In the 1970s, he rose to prominence as a leader
and founder of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, the religious movement that wrested
control over universities from the once dominant leftists. In his biography,
Aboul Fotouh recalls the early Salafi influence on his ideas: He and his fellow
students aggressively promoted sex segregation on campus. At one point, they
tried to "prove" to the Muslim Brotherhood's leader at the time, Umar
al-Tilmisani, that music was haram, or forbidden by Islam.
the course of the decade, Aboul Fotouh developed close relationships with those
who would later become the leading lights of Salafi thought. After the 2011
revolution, Aboul Fotouh, then in the process of splitting with the
Brotherhood, was one of the few politicians to take Salafists seriously. It
helped that he knew them. While the Muslim Brotherhood tended to treat
Salafists as immature, younger brothers in the Islamic family, Aboul Fotouh
exaggerated their power -- he once claimed that Salafists outnumbered Muslim
Brothers 20-to-1 -- and pledged to seek their vote. Respect, it turns out, can
go much further than ideological proximity.
the ideological tensions within the Islamist camp remain, even if Aboul
Fotouh's message tends to paper them over. According to him, all Islamists
agree on the usul (the "fundamentals") but differ on the furu (the
"specifics") of religious practice. In his February interview on
Salafi television, he estimated, implausibly, that Islamists agree on 99
percent of the issues.
far, his liberal supporters have dismissed such comments or explained them
away. Part of it is the lack of alternatives. The other front-runner, former
Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, is seen as felool, a derogatory term used to
describe "remnants" of the old regime. Part of it, however, is that
they really seem to believe Aboul Fotouh is who they want him to be. Although
Aboul Fotouh is adamantly an Islamist, he has also broken with his former
organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamists on key issues. Last
year, for instance, Aboul Fotouh asserted that a Muslim has the right to
convert to Christianity -- a particularly controversial position for a
presidential candidate to take, given that most Sunni scholars hold that the
punishment for apostasy is death.
Fotouh has often insisted on the dangers of mixing preaching and party
politics, a position that appeals to liberals as well as some Islamists. When I
met with him in 2010 at the height of the Mubarak regime's repression -- and
just months before the most rigged parliamentary elections in Egyptian history
-- he spoke at length about the need to separate the two. The Muslim Brotherhood,
he said, can deal with political issues but should leave competition over power
to political parties.
religion and political authority within one hand is very dangerous. That's what
happened in Iran," he told me, peppering his measured Arabic with choice
English words for added emphasis. "Historically, famous preachers were not
part of the power structure. It's these [autocratic] regimes who put the two
together -- putting al-Azhar [the preeminent center of Islamic learning] under
the control of the state."
Fotouh consistently valued the Muslim Brotherhood's social and evangelical work
over its accumulation of political power. In July 2008, I asked him what would
happen if Hosni Mubarak's regime shut the Brotherhood out of parliament. Faced
with the prospect of even more repression, he seemed surprisingly calm.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is a social movement in the first place. Its
presence in parliament is useful and good, but lack of parliamentary
representation does not have an existential effect on the Brotherhood. From
1970 to 1984, we weren't in parliament, and they were 14 of the most active
years for the Brotherhood's work of preaching and education."
this respect, Aboul Fotouh is an old-school Islamist, seeing himself as a
faithful heir to Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna's legacy. According to its
bylaws, the group's original aim was "to raise a generation of Muslims who
would understand Islam correctly and act according to its teachings."
Until 1934, the bylaws forbade direct political action. Decades later, General
Guide Tilmisani, fearing party politics would corrupt the Brotherhood's soul,
prevented the organization from contesting parliamentary elections for many
is a tension, however, between Aboul Fotouh's sometimes liberal pronouncements
and his essentially majoritarian understanding of democracy. When I sat down
with Aboul Fotouh for the first time in the summer of 2006, I wanted to
understand his philosophy of government, to the extent that he had one. He
repeatedly emphasized that the people, represented by a freely elected
parliament, are the source of authority. On the thorny question, however, of
what Islamists would do if parliament passed an "un-Islamic" law, he
dismissed the concern: "The parliament won't grant rights to gays because
that goes against the prevailing culture of society, and if [members of parliament]
did that, they'd lose the next election," he explained. "Whether you
are a communist, socialist, or whatever, you can't go against the prevailing
culture. There is already a built-in respect for sharia."
notion has a long pedigree in Islamic thought: Prophet Mohammed is believed to
have said, "My ummah [community] will not agree on an error."
Likewise, Aboul Fotouh was confident that once Egyptian society was free, the
best ideas would rise to the top. There was little need, then, to regulate
society from the top down. On their own, without government getting too much in
the way, Egyptians would do the right thing. And this would inevitably help
Islam. "What happens in a free society?" Aboul Fotouh went on.
"I hold conferences and spread my ideas through newspapers and television
to try to bring public opinion closer to me.… We have confidence in what we
people are looking for a consistent strain in Aboul Fotouh's thought, it is
this: that Islam has already won out and will continue to win out. Islam is a
source of unity and national strength rather than one of division. Depending on
where exactly an Egyptian voter stands, this is either reassuring and somewhat
banal, or mildly frightening, particularly for the country's Christian
it is an idea with analogues elsewhere in the region, most notably in Turkey
and Tunisia, where "moderate" Islamists came to power by tapping into
a religious mainstream that had lost faith in the secular project of previous
decades. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, used
democratization to strengthen the place of Islam in public life. He embraced
European Union accession talks while knowing full well that the required
liberal reforms would weaken the military's influence and empower Islamic
currents in a country where the right to openly express religious values had
been severely curtailed. In Tunisia, Rached Ghannouchi and his al-Nahda party
have backed off from demands that Islamic law be enshrined in the Tunisian
Constitution, perhaps knowing that Islamization of Tunisian society is already
well under way, regardless of what the Tunisian Constitution says.
the same attacks that follow Aboul Fotouh's counterparts in Turkey and Tunisia
will be used against him: that he is a proponent of "stealth
Islamization" and that he remains faithful to the project of applying
sharia. The critics might be right. If Aboul Fotouh becomes president, there
will be a battle -- between his liberal, revolutionary supporters and his
Islamist backers -- over the direction his presidency takes. Now that the major
Salafi organizations have endorsed him, they are likely to have significant
influence in an Aboul Fotouh administration, pushing his presidency to the
right on social and moral issues.
though Salafists are a critical bloc of support for the Aboul Fotouh campaign,
they have little presence in the candidate's inner circle and campaign
organization, which is composed mostly of ex-Muslim Brotherhood members, liberals,
and revolutionary youth. One of Aboul Fotouh's closest aides is Rabab El-Mahdi,
a Marxist political science professor, who says her "biggest project"
is ending the Islamist-secularist divide and focusing on the bread-and-butter
issues that actually matter in people's lives. Another is the 30-year-old Ali
El-Bahnasawy, a self-described liberal who is Aboul Fotouh's media advisor. He
told me that the Salafists' endorsement was "amazing" and credited
them for realizing that "Egypt needs to end the polarization in the
country now." For him, this is the essence of Aboul Fotouh's appeal.
"We need someone," Bahnasawy said, "who can talk to the
Islamists and speak their language and talk to the liberals and gain their
trust as well."
popularity of Aboul Fotouh's campaign is partly a reaction to growing
polarization in Egypt, where fears abound of an "Algeria scenario" of
annulled elections, dissolved parliaments, and military coups. But just as the
high hopes of the Obama campaign were dashed by the political compromises
inherent in governing, an Aboul Fotouh administration may find it difficult to
transcend the basic realities of Egyptian political life. If he wins, his
supporters will soon find that the divisions between Egypt's feuding political
currents do not dissipate quickly, if at all.
is perhaps telling that Aboul Fotouh's rise comes at a time when religious
belief has become an easy substitute for real discussion on economic recovery,
security-sector reform, or how to fight income inequality. For the vast
majority of Egyptians, the debate over sharia has been utterly beside the
point. It is an elite debate and, in some ways, a manufactured one. As Aboul
Fotouh will be the first to say, all major political forces support Article 2
of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that the "principles of the
Islamic sharia are the primary source of legislation." Even the most
"secular" party -- the Free Egyptians -- took to campaigning in rural
areas with banners reading "The Quran Is Our Constitution." Meanwhile,
it was the Salafists, and not the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, who entered
into serious negotiations over forming a parliamentary coalition with liberal
parties. As a senior official in the Salafi al-Nour Party once put it to me,
"Here in Egypt, even the liberals are conservatives."
has become the "hope and change" of Egyptian politics -- all say they
like it, but no one quite knows what it means. As the most powerful man in
Egypt and with a bully pulpit to match, Egypt's first revolutionary president
will have a fleeting opportunity to redefine the meaning of Islam in public
the introduction to his electoral program, Aboul Fotouh, the candidate,
embraces the application of sharia. But there's a caveat: "The
understanding of implementation of Islamic law is not, as some people think,
about applying the hudud punishments [such as cutting of the hands of
thieves]," the program reads. "In its complete understanding, Islamic
law has to do with realizing the essential and urgent needs of humankind."
The program then goes on to list combating poverty and fighting corruption as
two fundamental components of applying Islamic law.
Aboul Fotouh, sharia is both everything and nothing all at once. For now at
least, that seems to be exactly the way he wants it.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 09/05/2012
-Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow
at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution