Recent developments must force liberals to question their support for the presidential candidacy of Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh.
These developments center on Abouel Fotouh's shifting position about the ideal balance of power between the military, president, and Parliament, as well as his contradictory statements regarding the importance of selecting a “consensus revolutionary candidate.” This is in addition to his newly announced alliance with Salafi political movements and his changing stances on the politicization of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abouel Fotouh’s statements, however ambiguous they may be, do show a subtle shift in just how much power he believes should be divided between president and Parliament.
He stated in an interview back in December 2011 that Egypt is simply not ready for a political system where Parliament controls the majority of domestic affairs. His rejection of the parliamentary system of governance was on the basis that Egypt still lacks a multitude of strong political parties that would ensure that the voting process takes place on a level playing field. He predicted that perhaps in the future, Egypt could move closer to a parliamentary system. He added that he would not be interested in the presidency if the executive branch was completely subsumed by Parliament. He went so far as to say that he would drop out of the presidential race if this were to happen, as he is not interested in a ceremonial position. In later statements, Abouel Fotouh slightly changed his rhetoric by stating that he wished to pursue a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, but for the most part avoided defining just where the president’s authorities would end and where Parliament’s would begin.
Now, in a recent interview with Al-Arabiya, Abouel Fotouh said the president should only be responsible for defense, national security, and foreign policy, leaving everything else to the Islamist-dominated Parliament. Not only does this constitute a real shift in his outlook on policy, but it occurred without an explanation as to why he believed that the years of development that Egypt’s political scene required for creating strong diverse parties, which he had earlier believed were necessary for a parliamentary system, were now not essential.
In addition, if he is giving the presidency such limited portfolios, what will happen to his promises about the reallocation of resources in the state budget in order to increase spending on health care, education, and scientific research? As he defines the presidency, he will have absolutely no say on how state funds are to be spent. Are we then to consider his formal political platform as merely suggestions that he would offer to Parliament?
Moreover, Abouel Fotouh's policy shift eats away the trust of his liberal supporters. At best, acquiescing control of Egypt's domestic affairs to the Brotherhood-controlled Parliament entrusts the management of this country to a group who time and again demonstrate their disregard and intolerance of anyone who does not subscribe to or enable their agenda and quest for greater political power. At worst, this shift may re-ignite liberals' fears of a hidden collusion between Abouel Fotouh and the Brotherhood. This suspicion had recently reemerged through the discredited and short-lived smear which saw unsubstantiated allegations that the production company working on his campaign was in fact owned by Khairat al-Shater and Hassan Malek of the Brotherhood. More fuel was thrown onto the fire when presidential candidate Abul Ezz al-Hariry asserted that Abouel Fotouh is still loyal to the Brotherhood. Hariry's accusations are questionable on several fronts (including his claim that his rival has pledged allegiance to the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide), given that Abouel Fotouh failed to attend the meeting of MB leaders where they were supposed to swear allegiance.
While Abouel Fotouh’s organizational loyalties may not be conclusively proven one way or another, Hariry went on to claim that Abouel Fotouh has bailed out of a joint effort to back a single revolutionary candidate from among a number of candidates including Hariry himself, Khaled Ali, Hesham al-Bastawisi, and Hamdeen Sabbahi. Here again, Abouel Fotouh has made an inexplicable public statement that is contradictory and does not hold up to closer inspection.
In his aforementioned interview with Al-Arabiya, he unilaterally declared that he had already been chosen as the consensus revolutionary candidate by a committee composed of 100 figures representing the revolutionary forces. However, whether this effort is the same as that of the five “revolutionary” candidates is unclear. In the absence of an explanation from Abouel Fotouh and his campaign, this may lead to speculation that he has in fact has bailed out of efforts to reach broad-based consensus. This “bail out” seems to have happened right when he received the endorsement of the Salafi Nour Party, the Salafi Dawah, and Jama’a al-Islamiya.
Abouel Fotouh himself actually plainly stated almost a year ago that he fully expected Salafi support. At the time, many observers couldn’t reconcile this bold claim with the belief that Abouel Fotouh was a “liberal Islamist.” The endorsement of the ultra conservative Salafis has no doubt left liberal supporters anxiously wondering just what was said during the rounds of meetings between Abouel Fotouh and Salafi leaders — what exactly did Abouel Fotouh promise his Salafi “constituency,” and what does the future hold for those of us who may not share Salafi vision of society?
The perception that the most important decisions affecting Egypt are currently being made in back room deals has created an aura of suspicion around the country’s political actors, and Abouel Fotouh’s recent shift in position on the system of governance and the endorsement of the Salafis for his campaign have raised many red flags.
The presence of many respectable liberal figures in Abouel Fotouh’s campaign has definitely garnered him substantial non-Islamist supporters. The idea that Abouel Fotouh was readily willing to risk losing his liberal support in exchange for winning Salafi backing is disturbing. What we can be certain of, is that both Abouel Fotouh and the Salafis are both serious and committed to implementing Sharia law, despite talk by the former about tolerance and diversity.
In recent statements, Abouel Fotouh has stated that he actively opposed the formation of a political wing of the Brotherhood and believed that its proselytizing should be kept separate from its political activities. This is solidly backed up in a statement he wrote back in 2006, and which was recently rereleased by the Carnegie Endowment concerning the political future of the Brotherhood. Abouel Fotouh wrote in 2006 that “there is a debate within the movement about the possibility of transformation to a political party that carries out the movement’s reform agenda. Another possibility is establishing a separate political party, with a clear delineation of responsibilities between party and movement. We differentiate clearly between political and religious activities.” Despite the vagueness of his position in the previous statement, it is worth noting that since 2007, Abouel Fotouh had clearly been pushing for the formation of a political party to represent the Brotherhood, referenced to in an op-ed penned by him in the Guardian.
The problem with the two different paths he offers for the Brotherhood’s entry into politics is that both options do not separate the group's proselytizing from their political work. Even if the Brotherhood is subjected to a legal and financial audit as Abouel Fotouh’s campaign has indicated as a campaign promise, it is simply facetious to pretend that the now-formed Freedom and Justice Party and the Brotherhood are two separate entities, since the FJP utilized the Brotherhood’s charity work, resorted to preaching in mosques for electoral purposes, and incorporated the Brotherhood’s slogan, “Islam is the Answer,” without hesitation.
Abouel Fotouh and his campaign owe it to their non-Islamist supporters to clarify and harmonize his statements and positions. Otherwise, he risks losing voters.
I want to believe in Abouel Fotouh, but one should not be forced into the position of hoping he will be tolerant and unite Egypt, while at the same time fearing he is a wolf in sheep's clothing. To resolve this cognitive dissonance, the onus is on Abouel Fotouh to act with transparency and to clarify his political positions. If Abouel Fotouh wants to retain the trust of his diverse voter base, he must remain principled and consistent, and leave the double-talk and flip-flopping to Amr Moussa.