Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh was the leader of the Cairo University Student Union when he rose up to his feet to accuse then-invincible President Anwar al-Sadat of favoring hypocrites at a public conference in the 1970s. “I am not willing to listen to this talk, because it surpasses the boundaries of politeness…Stop and behave,” responded Sadat angrily.
Back then, this tense exchange damaged the medical school graduate’s career; he was denied the right to join Cairo University’s medical school as a professor despite his high grades, he says. Yet, yesterday's curse is today's blessing.
Sadat is gone, but the audio recording of this incident is still present on the internet, serving as a source of pride for the 60-year-old presidential hopeful. Betting on his long career of political activism, which has spanned many generations, and his incontestable reputation of standing up to an autocrat, Abouel Fotouh is competing to be the first president of post-Mubarak Egypt.
Hailing from a religious ideological background
Abouel Fotouh is quite an iconic Islamist politician, whose outlook has drawn on different interpretations of Islam. In late 2010, he released his autobiography under the title “A Witness to the History of Egypt's Islamic Movement,” in which he poignantly expressed his ideological evolution from radical Islamism that tends to excommunicate the other to a more moderate version of Islam. The book depicts his early days as a founder of the fundamentalist student-led Jama’a al-Islamiya at the beginning of the 1970s. It also gives a thorough account of how he relinquished his extreme Salafi outlook under the guidance of Muslim Brotherhood preachers a few years later.
The text shows how Abouel Fotouh contributed immensely to reinvigorating the Muslim Brotherhood by convincing thousands of his cohorts in Jama’a al-Islamiya to join the nation’s oldest Islamist organization. Back then, Sadat had just released the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders from prison and allowed them to revive their organization in order to counter leftist forces. These Islamist leaders approached Abouel Fotouh and his peers to join the Brotherhood in order to rejuvenate the ailing organization. Eventually, they joined the group, relinquished their intransigent views and adopted the more moderate Brotherhood's outlook.
Yet, when Abouel Fotouh, a syndicate leader at the Arab Doctors Union, outdid his peers by embracing more liberal views decades later, his historic role did not give him enough influence to maintain a leading position in the Muslim Brotherhood. In late 2009, he was excluded from the organization's Guidance Bureau in an allegedly fraudulent poll. In July 2011, he was dismissed from the organization all together due to his intention to compete in the presidential poll, which defied the group’s decision not to field a presidential candidate.
Throughout his political career, Abouel Fotouh was jailed at least three times. He was among the hundreds of activists and opposition intellectuals whom Sadat sent to jail a few weeks before his assassination. Under Mubarak, he was sentenced to five years by a military court in the mid-1990s for belonging to the then-banned Muslim Brotherhood. In 2009, he was imprisoned for a few months as part of a sporadic crackdown on the group’s leadership.
Putting together a mosaic campaign
Since he launched his campaign in May, Abouel Fotouh has been adopting a distinct discourse that seeks to tone down Egypt's secular-Islamist divide. Capitalizing on his historical ties with the Islamist bloc and on his liberal views that reconcile Islam and democracy, Abouel Fotouh has been marketing himself as the missing link between Egypt’s hardcore secularists and intransigent Islamists. His campaign reflects this line of thought quite vividly as it brings together a Marxist political adviser, a professional media adviser from outside the Islamist loop and thousands of young members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Advancing “a mainstream political trend” that embraces democracy and equality for all Egyptians and, in the meantime, respects Egyptian conservative social norms is the narrative of Abouel Fotouh’s campaign.
This discourse builds on almost eight years of Abouel Fotouh’s efforts to put forth a liberal form of Islamism.
Since 2004, Abouel Fotouh has risen as a resilient opponent of Mubarak’s regime as well as a dovish voice within the Muslim Brotherhood. He positioned himself as the liaison between the Brothers and secular political factions. He co-founded the Kefaya movement along with leftists and liberals, which led a wave of anti-Mubarak protests beginning in 2005. He participated in many protests that demanded the end of Mubarak’s rule and opposed the grooming of Gamal Mubarak to inherit power. In the meantime, he expressed progressive views that sounded alien to mainstream Islamist discourse. He stated that women and Copts should have the right to run for president. He also expressed his full support of freedom of expression and faith. In the meantime, he insisted that his group should stop mixing its political activities with proselytizing. None of these views resonated with the group's hawks, who became in full control of the organization in late 2009.
Another trait of Abouel Fotouh's discourse is his consistent support of revolutionary demands and his vehement criticism of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ performance during the transitional period. He threw his full support behind calls to shorten the transitional period and force the generals to return to the barracks. Due to such positions, his name echoed across Tahrir Square in November when many young revolutionaries suggested that he and political reformist Mohamed ElBaradei form a national salvation government to replace the military-appointed one. In recent weeks, he voiced ruthless criticism of the alleged attempts by the Brothers and the generals to put forward a presidential candidate who would serve the interest of both parties.
Despite his attempts to accommodate both Islamists and secularists, Abouel Fotouh is not expected to garner the endorsement of major Islamist or secular parties. Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor Salafi parties have yet announced who they would back but there are indicators that Abouel Fotouh will not be their choice.
The Muslim Brotherhood would not back an outcast leader. Salafis would not cast their ballots for a candidate whose views, to them, compromise “Islamic fundamentals,” especially as a Salafi nominee is set to compete in the race. As for secular parties, many of them still doubt the genuineness of his moderate discourse and remain reluctant to back a nominee with an Islamist tag. To them, voting him into the executive post would mean bringing the whole political system under Islamists’ control. Islamists already hold a sweeping majority in both houses of Parliament.
As for the larger electorate, the size of Abouel Fotouh's following remains quite enigmatic due to the dearth of reliable and scientific polling. Some recent ad-hoc online surveys suggest that competition for the presidential race will be confined to Salafi preacher Hazem Abu Ismail and Abouel Fotouh. However, earlier surveys had suggested that Abouel Fotouh had no significant following.
On 10 March, presidential hopefuls can file their candidacy with the Presidential Elections Commission. To meet eligibility conditions, a potential nominee should back his application with the endorsement of at least 30 parliamentarians or 30,000 eligible voters. According to a campaign spokesman, Ahmed Ossama, Abouel Fotouh is pursuing both tracks.
So far, Abouel Fotouh has not put forward any elaborate political platform to share his vision on the numerous political, social and economic challenges inherited from the Mubarak era. Yet, his website displays an abridged version of his outlook. Abouel Fotouh envisages a democratic system based on checks and balances between the government's three branches. He endorses a mixed-political system until the first presidential term is completed after four years. The ultimate goal shall be the establishment of a parliamentary system, reads his website. On the economy, he emphasizes human development as a means for prosperity. He also opts for increasing public resources and reducing expenditure. His site mentions the need to adopt progressive taxation, raise minimum wage and invest in public education. For some critics, this outlook lacks depth and sophistication.
As for the campaign's finances, Ossama told Egypt Independent that the campaign relies so far on the “little” support provided by people close to Abouel Fotouh and his youth supporters. Ossama added that some businessmen, whom he refused to name, have already offered to sponsor Abouel Fotouh's candidacy.