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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.