Egyptian Campaign Focuses on Islam’s Role in Public Life (NY) TIMES) By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK CAIRO, EGYPT 05/12/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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CAIRO — Twelve days before a presidential election, a televised
debate that carried on into the early morning hours Friday has put
the role of Islam in Egypt’s government at the center of the
campaign, with the self-described liberal Islamist in the race coming
under fire over whether his agenda is too religious or too secular.
The four-hour debate — which would have been unthinkable before last
year’s ouster of Hosni Mubarak — returned repeatedly to questions
about the meaning of Islamic law, its place in Egypt, and the role of
Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Although all the
candidates say public security and the economy are the most salient
issues to voters, the debate established the polarizing question of
the role of Islam in public life as the main point of contrast among
the leading candidates.
And both during the debate and outside, the attacks from both
secularists and Islamists on Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who is
campaigning as a liberal Islamist, suggested that rivals now see him
as the candidate to beat.
During the debate, Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister running as
the secular alternative to an “experiment” in Islamist rule,
repeatedly accused Mr. Aboul Fotouh of harboring a hard-line Islamist
agenda — sometimes by relying on distortions of his rival’s record.
From the other side, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that
controls the Parliament, stepped up a series of attacks on Mr. Aboul
Fotouh as being close to a liberal heretic. In the process, the
Brotherhood appeared to cast aside its efforts as a moderate
movement, sounding notably sympathetic to the arguments of
ultraconservatives who want to prohibit a non-Muslim from holding the
presidency or to censor literary works deemed offensive to Muslims.
At one point in the debate, Mr. Moussa picked up a copy of Mr. Aboul
Fotouh’s memoirs — a manifesto for a peaceful, democratic and
tolerant vision of Islamist politics — and read a line out of
context, suggesting support for the use of violence. “Where is the
candidate?” Mr. Moussa charged repeatedly, even after
clarification. “Will he return to his position in the book?”
At another point, Mr. Moussa blamed Mr. Aboul Fotouh for the deaths
of Egyptians at the hands of a violent Islamist group with which Mr.
Aboul Fotouh has never had any connection. “Isn’t it time you
apologize?” Mr. Moussa asked. “How do you live with all this blood on
The Muslim Brotherhood did not participate in the debate because its
presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, lags the other two in the few
available opinion polls. But while Mr. Moussa was attacking Mr. Aboul
Fotouh as a closet radical, the Brotherhood issued two widely
publicized statements slamming him instead for his liberalism.
Mr. Aboul Fotouh, a reformist leader expelled from the Brotherhood
last year in a political dispute, recently confounded the group by
winning the endorsement of the largest preaching and political
organizations of the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis. Salafi
parties recently won nearly a quarter of the seats in Parliament,
making them a crucial swing bloc in the presidential race.
Salafi leaders have explained their unexpected support for Mr. Aboul
Fotouh in several ways: they concluded he was a stronger candidate
than the Brotherhood’s or the other Islamists in the running; they
understand that Egypt is ready only for baby steps toward their
puritanical goals; they feared allowing the Brotherhood to take
control of both the presidency and the Parliament; and they are
uncomfortable with the Brotherhood’s demands for obedience from its
members, even in politics.
Hoping to undercut the endorsement, the Brotherhood’s spokesman,
Mahmoud Ghozlan, this week published two columns recounting the
Salafis’ past attacks on Mr. Aboul Fotouh for his liberal views.
“This, literally, is your opinion of what your presidential candidate
says, and then you choose to support him for the biggest position in
the country?” Mr. Ghozlan asked, at times coming close to endorsing
the Salafis’ criticisms of Mr. Aboul Fotouh himself.
“Taking into account that the Muslim Brotherhood denounced his
statements and clashed with him — then added new materials to their
literature to reassert their fundamental principles — are the
Brothers really the ones who let go of their fundamentals and don’t
have a complete Islamist vision?” Mr. Ghozlan wrote.
In 2005, Mr. Ghozlan recounted, prominent Salafi preachers had
criticized Mr. Aboul Fotouh for declaring that electoral democracy
was more important than a constitution explicitly based on Islamic
law. If the voters chose to remove the clause from the Egyptian
constitution declaring that it is derived from the principles of
Islamic law, Islamists should respect their choice, Mr. Aboul Fotouh
had said, because democracy was at the heart of Islamic law.
“The radical Islamists say, ‘God,’ and we say, ‘governance of the
people,’ ” Mr. Aboul Fotouh had said at the time, as Mr. Ghozlan
wrote. “The real approach to democracy is governance of the people
and the rotation of power.” The Salafis attacked those same quotes as
sacrilege, arguing that God’s law should be supreme.
In 2003, Mr. Ghozlan recalled, the Salafis had slammed Mr. Aboul
Fotouh for defending the eligibility of a Christian to hold the
presidency. They also took him to task for defending the freedom of
writers to publish material, “even if it called for apostasy” or
described “flirtation, love and sex.”
And they were incensed that Mr. Aboul Fotouh had personally visited
Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author, to urge him to
publish a controversial novel, “Children of Our Alley,” which
conservative Muslim scholars consider godless and profane.
Just a few years ago, Mr. Ghozlan wrote, the Salafis had even praised
the Brotherhood leadership for pushing aside Mr. Aboul Fotouh and
“This is a confusing position that is difficult to comprehend,” Mr.
Ghozlan wrote, suggesting that Mr. Aboul Fotouh was not campaigning
as a true Islamist.
In response, Sheik Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, a prominent Salafi leader
addressed in the columns, acknowledged major differences with Mr.
Aboul Fotouh over his “permissiveness.”
But at the same time, Sheik Shahat said, Salafis agreed with Mr.
Aboul Fotouh’s longstanding opposition to the Brotherhood leadership
over its intolerance of internal dissent and tight control of its
political party. Since the group’s nomination of Mr. Morsi, even
fellow Islamists had come to fear that the Brotherhood leaders were
power-hungry, Sheik Shahat wrote, in part because of “the aggressive
position of some of Dr. Morsi’s supporters against all those who
supported Dr. Aboul Fotouh.” Mayy El Sheikh and Kareem Fahim
contributed reporting. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company
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