Egypt’s election campaign for president formally began Monday and there’s a new frontrunner for the first such democratic vote to take place May 23-24.
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, received the endorsement on the weekend of the country’s leading Salafist movement and of al Nour, the largest Salafist political party.
The Salafists, who came a strong second to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party in recent parliamentary elections, are not fielding a presidential candidate of their own. The radical preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, whom people thought would garner a great many Salafist votes, was ruled ineligible to run because his mother was a U.S. citizen.
But the Salafists may well have endorsed Dr. Aboul Fotouh regardless of who was running.
Asked why they voted Salafist instead of for the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections, voters in the poor, crowded Ein Shams district of Cairo, a Salafist stronghold, said it was because the Muslim Brotherhood had become part of the establishment. They preferred the modestly-robed Salafists who walked the streets of the neighbourhood and weren’t afraid to buck the establishment.
And this attitude may lie behind the Salafist presidential endorsement.
While both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are described as Islamists – people who want Islamic law to be a guiding force in society and in government – Salafists are widely regarded as more conservative, more literal in their interpretation of holy scripture.
This would seem to make them an odd match for Dr. Aboul Fatouh, seen by most as a liberal.
Dr. Aboul Fotouh, a pediatrician, was chairman of the Doctors Syndicate (union) and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s inner circle for many years, but he was critical of the Brotherhood’s dictatorial practices, and broke from the movement when it refused to permit him to run for president.
Significantly, the Brotherhood decided, after all, to field a presidential candidate of its own. The group’s inner circle selected Mohamed Morsi, the chairman of the Freedom and Justice party, after its first choice, Khairat el-Shater, also was barred from running. You can be sure the Brotherhood will be pushing its followers to vote for the leadership’s choice.
Salafists, among others, don’t want to see a Muslim Brotherhood president as well as a Brotherhood-dominated parliament, and while they may not agree with Dr. Aboul Fotouh’s non-literal interpretation of the Koran, they like his independence.
Many also like the fact that Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential Egyptian preacher who lived in exile in Qatar for many years, also has endorsed Dr. Aboul Fotouh, although not exclusively. Sheik al-Qaradawi, whose weekly religious program on al-Jazeera television is hugely popular, said he views Dr. Aboul Fotouh’s candidacy as acceptable to the people.
With the Salafist endorsement, Dr. Aboul Fotouh now can count on support coming from the three broad streams of Egyptian politics: liberals, including Christians and secular Muslims, who see Dr. Aboul Fotouh as a better choice than Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister during the Hosni Mubarak years; moderately observant Muslims, including the many young people who have bolted from the Muslim Brotherhood over its strict internal practices, who welcome another choice moderate religious choice apart from the Brotherhood’s candidate; and now conservative Islamists.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail in late February, Dr. Aboul Fotouh came across as a gentle giant. The very tall, gangly doctor was moderate in everything he said, yet quietly ambitious.
The thing that he and the Salafists may most have in common is their attachment to democracy, at least as a vehicle to power. While Dr. Aboul Fotouh professes to believe in democracy’s moderating effects and insists the Koran shouldn’t necessarily be taken literally, it is harder to see the fundamentalist Salafists adhering to such an approach for long – perhaps for just one election.