Moderate Islamist runs on middle ground in Egypt (AP) Associated Press) By AYA BATRAWY CAIRO, EGYPT 04/13/12 3:10 am ET)
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CAIRO – It was a simple gesture: About a decade ago, Abdel-Moneim
Abolfotoh, a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, took a pen as a
present to Egypt´s most famous novelist and Nobel laureate on his
It was also a gesture of defiance. The Brotherhood shunned the late
novelist Naguib Mahfouz, whose secular writings were considered
blasphemous by hard-liners. The move fueled Abolfotoh´s reputation as
a moderate reformer in a fundamentalist group that opponents fear
aims to create religious rule in Egypt.
Now Abolfotoh, who was thrown out of the Brotherhood last year, is
banking on that reputation as he runs to become Egypt´s president. He
is angling to be one of the few candidates with crossover appeal for
both religious conservatives and liberals.
His hope is that there is a middle ground in a deeply divided race.
On one side are Islamists, particularly Khairat el-Shater, the
candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, who can draw from the large
religious vote. On the other are figures from the former regime of
ousted President Hosni Mubarak, symbolized by former intelligence
chief and vice president Omar Suleiman. They are looking for support
from Egyptians worried over rising Islamist power.
Abolfotoh´s chances in the May 23-24 election will hinge on whether
he is Islamist enough to pull in part of the religious vote while
moderate enough to attract liberals who distrust the Brotherhood but
want an alternative to Suleiman. He may benefit from divisions among
Islamists, as el-Shater faces a strong challenge from an
ultraconservative lawyer-turned-preacher, Hazem Abu Ismail.
Addressing a crowd on the campaign trail this month in the north
Cairo district of Birket el-Hagg, Abolfotoh hit most heavily on the
themes dear to liberals and revolutionaries — an end to Mubarak-era
corruption, creation of a society where presidents and politicians
are accountable before the law, reform of the economy, education,
health and the police.
At the same time, the 60-year-old Abolfotoh, who sports a
conservative´s close-cropped beard and a bruise on his forehead from
prayer, dotted the speech with Quranic verses and stories of the
"God loves a Muslim who does work with skill," he said to back his
calls for good governance. He added a criticism of hard-liners:
"We must stop presenting Islam and the great Shariah law as if it´s
foolishness and craziness and extremism. Shariah has never been
anything but goodness, mercy, justice and rationality," he
said. "Islam knows to administer with skill."
Abolfotoh´s rise through the Brotherhood and his ultimate expulsion
are key to his bid.
Many fear the Brotherhood will end up with too much power if it wins
the presidency. Liberals believe it could bring the same
authoritarianism as Mubarak, only now with an Islamist bent. The
Brotherhood showed its electoral power by winning nearly half of
parliament late last year, making it by far the largest bloc. It and
other Islamists sidelined moderates and liberals by creating an
Islamist-dominated assembly to write a new constitution.
Abolfotoh, a pediatrician who also holds a law degree, served for
years on the Brotherhood´s Guidance Bureau, its highest executive
body. He and el-Shater — the group´s longtime deputy leader — were
both imprisoned multiple times in crackdowns on the banned group,
including a 5-year stint for Abolfotoh under Mubarak.
But he was hardly an institutional man. There was frequent friction
with the conservative leadership.
Several years ago, he irked his fellow Brothers by saying he would
rather have a good Christian than a bad Muslim as president —
contradicting the movement´s line that majority Muslim Egypt should
not be ruled by a Christian.
He also publicly slammed the Brotherhood for not being transparent
about its financing. The Brotherhood spent most of its 90 years
outlawed and operating in semi-secrecy, building a network of
charitable operations and businesses.
When the protests against Mubarak erupted on Jan. 25, 2011, Abolfotoh
immediately showed his support, unlike the Brotherhood leadership,
which hesitated for days. His stance elated many young Brothers who
joined protests even before their leaders condoned it.
During the 18-day uprising, Abolfotoh criticized the Brotherhood for
meeting with Suleiman and other regime figures in talks that the
regime hoped in vain would defuse the protests.
The final straw came when Abolfotoh announced last year he would run
for president, despite the Brotherhood´s promise at the time that it
would not run a candidate. Abolfotoh was ejected from the group.
The Brotherhood banned its members from supporting Abolfotoh. But
significant numbers of youth turned to his campaign. Late last month,
the Brotherhood reversed its stance and nominated el-Shater.
Abolfotoh´s ejection was a major turnaround for a veteran of the
movement. He was part of a generation who, as university activists,
breathed new life into the Brotherhood in the 1970s, a time when
women felt comfortable going out in miniskirts in Cairo and
communists were active on campuses.
Abolfotoh, whose mother was illiterate and whose father was a middle-
class government employee, was among a tight-knit group of Islamists
at Cairo University. They sold headscarves on campus, encouraging
women to take on conservative Muslim dress. They preached to
students, defending Islamic virtues in the face of communist
In 1975, as student union president, Abolfotoh publicly challenged
then-President Anwar Sadat, asking him why a prominent Islamic
scholar had been arrested and protesters were being beaten by
"The only scholars left are those who work for you, the state and the
leaders of this state," he prods Sadat, in audio of the encounter
posted on Abolfotoh´s website. Sadat angrily dismisses him from the
Though some liberals have flocked to Abolfotoh´s campaign, others
remain suspicious of his Brotherhood past. Abolfotoh faces heavy
competition for liberals´ vote, chiefly from former foreign minister
and Arab League chief Amr Moussa.
"Abolfotoh does not appeal to me because he is part of the Islamist
camp. If our choice is between a moderate Islamist or an extreme
Islamist, then our hopes for a civil government have been really
dashed," said Mahmoud Salem, a member of the liberal Free Egyptians
Party. "Abolfotoh could quite possibly allow faith to dictate his
Abolfotoh places far less emphasis than other Islamists on bringing a
strict implementation of Islamic law to Egypt, one of the main
worries of liberals. He says it should be one of the bases of law and
does not seek to strengthen its place in Egypt´s constitution.
Instead, he presents faith as key to bringing liberty. At a Cairo
rally in early February, a young boy asked him what his definition of
"No nation can make you a slave," Abolfotoh replied, giving a line he
repeats often: "Tawheed (the Islamic belief in one God) gives you
freedom to be a slave to nothing but God." (© 2012 The Associated
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