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Winning by losing in Egypt?

With the May 23–24 elec­tions in Egypt just around the cor­ner anoth­er runoff is look­ing like­ly in the pres­i­den­tial race with no clear leader yet to emerge. But one thing is clear: the top Islamist in the race won’t be the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood­s’s can­di­date [1]...sort of.

Instead, it’s the the ‘lib­er­al’ Islamist can­di­idate Abdel Mon­eim Abol Fotouh that some­how man­aged to secure the endorse­ment of the salafists late last month fol­low­ing the mass can­di­date purge that left the salafists with­out a can­di­date [2]. He is also an ‘ex’ Mus­lim Broth­er­hood leader that was expelled from the MB just last year when he pro­ceed­ed to run for office after the MB offi­cial­ly declared that it would not be field­ing a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date (this was, of course, before the MB went ahead and field­ed a can­di­date in spite of their ear­li­er pledges). So just how much dis­tance is there between Mr. Abol Fotouh and the MB? And how on earth did the ultra-fun­da­men­tal­ist salafists end up back­ing the sup­posed ‘lib­er­al’ Islamist that does­n’t appear to favor a strict imple­men­ta­tion of sharia law. That’s a good ques­tion [3]:

NY Times
Sup­port From Islamists for Lib­er­al Upends Race in Egypt
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and MAYY EL SHEIKH
Pub­lished: April 28, 2012

ABU HOMOS, Egypt — Egypt’s most con­ser­v­a­tive Islamists endorsed a lib­er­al Islamist for pres­i­dent late Sat­ur­day night, upend­ing the polit­i­cal land­scape and con­found­ing expec­ta­tions about the inter­nal dynam­ics of the Islamist move­ment.

The main mis­sion­ary and polit­i­cal groups of the ultra­con­ser­v­a­tives, known as Salafis, threw their sup­port behind Abdel Mon­eim Aboul Fotouh, a dis­si­dent for­mer leader of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood known for his tol­er­ant and inclu­sive view of Islam­ic law.

The endorse­ment goes a long way toward mak­ing Mr. Aboul Fotouh the front-run­ner in a cam­paign that could shape the ulti­mate out­come of the revolt that oust­ed the for­mer strong­man, Hos­ni Mubarak.

Mr. Aboul Fotouh’s lib­er­al under­stand­ing of Islam­ic law on mat­ters of indi­vid­ual free­dom and eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty had already made him the pre­ferred can­di­date of many Egypt­ian lib­er­als.

His endorse­ment on Sat­ur­day by the Salafis now makes him the can­di­date of Egypt’s most deter­mined con­ser­v­a­tives, too. Known for their strict focus on Islam­ic law, the Salafis often talk of reviv­ing medieval Islam­ic cor­po­ral pun­ish­ments, restrict­ing women’s dress and the sale of alco­hol, and crack­ing down on hereti­cal cul­ture.

The deci­sion was announced by offi­cials of the preach­ing group the Salafi Call and on the Web site of its allied par­ty, Al Nour. Nei­ther group gave a defin­i­tive rea­son for their pick.

But Salafi lead­ers described their deci­sion in part as a reac­tion against the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, the pow­er­ful and estab­lished Islamist group that now dom­i­nates Par­lia­ment. Though more mod­er­ate than the Salafis, the Broth­er­hood also favors the fash­ion­ing of an explic­it­ly Islam­ic democ­ra­cy in Egypt, and on social and cul­tur­al issues the group is clos­er to the Salafis than Mr. Aboul Fotouh is.

...

But the Salafi endorse­ment also appeared to pro­vide an unex­pect­ed val­i­da­tion for Mr. Aboul Fotouh’s argu­ment that mix­ing preach­ing and pol­i­tics would be “dis­as­trous” for both Islam and Egypt, as he put it in an inter­view last week with El Rah­ma, a major Salafi satel­lite chan­nel.

Mr. Aboul Fotouh, a physi­cian who led the Broth­er­hood-dom­i­nat­ed med­ical asso­ci­a­tion, was a founder of a 1970s stu­dent move­ment that revi­tal­ized Islamist pol­i­tics here. He was expelled from the Broth­er­hood last year for defy­ing the deci­sion of its lead­ers to bar mem­bers from run­ning for pres­i­dent or engag­ing in pol­i­tics out­side its own polit­i­cal par­ty.

...

So Mr. Aboul Fotouh was a found­ing mem­ber of the 1970’s stu­dents move­ment in Egypt that was crushed by Mubarak after the assas­si­na­tion of Anwar Sadat. And even Gama’a al-Islamiya(Jama’a al-Islamiya) — one of the mil­i­tant spin­ter groups to emerge from that era [4] — is back­ing him. This is the same group that ter­ror­ized Egypt in the 90’s [5] and even merged with al-Qae­da in 2006(the group denies it but there’s a video that says oth­er­wise [6]). This his­to­ry as a leader from that crit­i­cal era when the MB spit into a larg­er net­work of affil­i­at­ed splin­ter groups might par­tial­ly explain some of Mr. Abol Fotouh’s broad Islamist appeal when all sides agree that there is no mean­ing­ful ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ence between Abul Fotouh and the MB [7]:

Islamist stakes claim to Egypt mid­dle ground

By Tom Per­ry

CAIRO | Mon Apr 30, 2012 3:05pm EDT

(Reuters) — Abdel Mon­eim Abol Fotouh was jailed by Hos­ni Mubarak but has emerged as a front-run­ner for his old job as pres­i­dent of Egypt, stak­ing claim to the polit­i­cal cen­tre in this nascent democ­ra­cy with a mod­er­ate Islamist plat­form that has found broad appeal.

A senior fig­ure in the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood until he part­ed ways with the group last year, he is part of the gen­er­a­tion of Islamist activists that spawned al Qae­da leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Both doc­tors, they spent time in adjoin­ing jail cells in 1981. For the most part, that’s where the sim­i­lar­i­ties end.

Abol Fotouh presents him­self as a cham­pi­on of mod­er­ate Islam, yet he has been able to win the back­ing of hard­lin­ers thanks part­ly to a polit­i­cal brain which many say sets him apart from the Broth­er­hood. Even some lib­er­als, impressed by his reformist zeal, say they could vote for the bespec­ta­cled 60-year old.

...

As a stu­dent leader in the 1970s, Abol Fotouh is remem­bered for con­fronting Pres­i­dent Anwar Sadat in a debate, famous­ly telling him he was sur­round­ed by hyp­ocrites.

In 1981, he was arrest­ed by the Sadat gov­ern­ment in a crack­down against dis­si­dents. Under Mubarak, his activism land­ed him in jail twice for a total of more than six years.

REACHING OUT

Cam­paign­ing under the slo­gan “Strong Egypt”, Abol Fotouh has stressed the need to fin­ish the coun­try’s unfin­ished rev­o­lu­tion by root­ing out rem­nants of the Mubarak era from the state.

He pledges to increase health and edu­ca­tion spend­ing, to make Egyp­t’s army the most pow­er­ful in the region and to turn its econ­o­my into one of the 20 strongest in the world. His pro­gram says he will adhere to Islam­ic law.

Like oth­er can­di­dates, he has called for a review of Egyp­t’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which he says was “imposed” on Egypt.

While the Broth­er­hood has faced broad crit­i­cism for alien­at­ing oth­er par­ties in the year since Mubarak was top­pled, Abol Fotouh is cred­it­ed with reach­ing out across the polit­i­cal spec­trum.

His efforts appear to be pay­ing div­i­dends. While the Broth­er­hood’s Mur­si has tried to cast him­self as the only Islamist in the race, Abol Fotouh man­aged to con­vince lead­ing hard­line Salafi groups they should endorse him instead.

The Nour Par­ty, a Salafi group that won a fifth of the seats in par­lia­ment, has endorsed him. So too has al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, a Salafi group that took up arms against the state but dis­avowed vio­lence in 1997.

The Wasat Par­ty, a cen­trist par­ty run by ex-Broth­er­hood mem­bers who left in the 1990s, has also endorsed Abol Fotouh.

A mem­ber of the Broth­er­hood’s exec­u­tive board from 1987 to 2009, Abol Fotouh still com­mands respect in the group. His can­di­da­cy is also endorsed by Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, a cler­ic held in high regard by Broth­er­hood fol­low­ers.

In terms of ide­ol­o­gy, there is lit­tle dif­fer­ence to me between Mur­si and Abdel Mon­eim. As for the orga­ni­za­tion, of course there is a dif­fer­ence, but the idea is the same,” Hel­mi el-Gaz­zar, a Broth­er­hood mem­ber of par­lia­ment, told Reuters.

...

That’s how crazy Egypt­ian pol­i­tics has become in the last month. Even Sheik al-Qaradawi [8] is back­ing the ‘lib­er­al’ Islamist in the race. And the MB’s replace­ment can­di­date Mohamed Mor­si — fol­low­ing the ejec­tion of can­di­dates last month includ­ing the MB’s el Shater and the salafist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail [9] — has fall­en behind even a Mubarak-era fig­ure and was polling fourth or fifth going into Wednes­day’s elec­tions [10]:

Egypt pres­i­den­tial race gets new twist: Mubarak-era fig­ure surges
Pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Ahmed Shafik, Hos­ni Mubarak’s last prime min­is­ter, ris­es in the polls days before the elec­tion. He may not win but could become a spoil­er.
By Jef­frey Fleish­man, Los Ange­les Times

May 20, 2012, 9:11 p.m.

CAIRO — The race for Egyp­t’s pres­i­dent is tight­en­ing as a surge by a for­mer prime min­is­ter has raised fresh con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries that rem­nants of deposed leader Hos­ni Mubarak’s regime are angling for pow­er.

The first round of vot­ing begins Wednes­day, but many Egyp­tians are still unde­cid­ed in what is large­ly a con­test between Islamists and two men con­nect­ed to the old regime. The dra­ma has been inten­si­fied by a last-minute swell in pop­u­lar­i­ty for Ahmed Shafik, a retired air force gen­er­al appoint­ed prime min­is­ter in the weeks before Mubarak’s gov­ern­ment fell last year.

...

Recent polls sug­gest a close elec­tion that will prob­a­bly lead to a runoff. The top con­tenders are Amr Mous­sa, a sec­u­lar­ist and for­mer for­eign min­is­ter, and Abdel Mon­eim Aboul Fotouh, a lib­er­al Islamist. Gains by Shafik and Hamdeen Sabahi, a left-lean­ing nation­al­ist, have jolt­ed the race, high­light­ing vary­ing polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies and grow­ing sus­pi­cions over Islamist can­di­dates.

...

The expect­ed sce­nario is that Shafik may be a spoil­er, drain­ing votes from Mous­sa and boost­ing Aboul Fotouh, who is strug­gling to appease lib­er­als and ultra­con­ser­v­a­tive Salafis. The enthu­si­asm Aboul Fotouh’s self-described con­sen­sus can­di­da­cy attract­ed months ago has dimin­ished in recent weeks over doubts that he can rep­re­sent such diverse, and often antag­o­nis­tic, polit­i­cal and reli­gious inter­ests.

What is less clear, how­ev­er, is the fate of Mohamed Mor­si, a Cal­i­for­nia-edu­cat­ed engi­neer run­ning as the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood can­di­date. Polls sug­gest that Mor­si has dropped to fourth or fifth place over a back­lash against the Broth­er­hood, which con­trols near­ly 50% of the seats in par­lia­ment, for break­ing polit­i­cal promis­es and its lack of inclu­sion.

But the Broth­er­hood is the best orga­nized polit­i­cal machine in the coun­try. It is respect­ed by many Egyp­tians for its years of oppo­si­tion to Mubarak and a net­work of social pro­grams that stretch from inner-city neigh­bor­hoods to the provinces. Mor­si is like­ly to do well among the poor and Islam­ic con­ser­v­a­tives, whom he has heav­i­ly court­ed at cam­paign stops.

...

So the MB appears to be poised for a sur­pris­ing­ly poor show­ing in the pres­i­den­tial race over grow­ing sus­pi­cions and con­cerns over the MB’s dom­i­na­tion of Egyp­t’s new government...sort of.