Egypt's next president?

Negar Azimi

Abdel-Moneim Abou El Fotouh, the secretary general of the Arab Medical Union and a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood since the late 1970s, announced in May that he would run in Egypt’s presidential elections as an independent candidate. The Brotherhood has been cautious about the political openings afforded by the fall of Mubarak. They have launched a political party – the Freedom and Justice Party – but insist they have no interest in fielding a candidate for the presidency. In June, Abou El Fotouh was expelled from the organisation. When I went to see him a few days ago, Abou El Fotouh – who with his colourful ties and thick glasses has more of the air of a popular physics professor than an ideologue of Egypt’s oldest and most organised Islamist movement – didn’t want to talk about his quarrel with the Brotherhood, except to say: ‘It makes me sad.’ Then he said: ‘Never mind. If this is the new Egypt, we have a lot of work to do.’

During the 1977 Bread Riots, the 26-year-old Abou El Fotouh was a medical student and head of the student union at Cairo University. At a meeting between the president and students, he grabbed the microphone to attack Sadat for the viciousness of the crackdown. Sadat, visibly caught off guard, railed at the student’s impudence. Abou El Fotouh was later jailed three times for agitating against the regime: in 1981, from 1995 to 2000, and again in 2009. The last time, many liberal non-Brothers called for his release. In 2007, he had opposed a Muslim Brotherhood platform that excluded women and Christians from competing for the presidency. Last year he was voted off the Brotherhood’s Guardian Council. When the protests began in January this year, he supported the younger members of the Brotherhood who spent their days and nights in Tahrir Square – and joined them, too – in defiance of the official Brotherhood position. ‘They were just waiting for the best time to push him out,’ Durham University’s Khalil Al-Anani recently told me. ‘And he gave them the cause by running for the presidency.’

Abou El Fotouh’s ouster may be the most significant public schism in the Brotherhood since the 1990s, when a group of Brothers split off and started the moderate Wasat (‘Centre’) Party. (Abou El Fotouh defended the Wasat initiative.) Though the Freedom and Justice Party has recently issued a manifesto that seems finally to embrace the neoliberal economic reality the Brotherhood has scoffed at in the past, and does away with any mention of clerics playing a role in the state (a feature of their controversial 2007 platform), Abou El Fotouh is more lenient on questions of gender, sect and personal freedom. In May he said that conversion out of Islam, which most Brothers consider apostasy and punishable by death, was admissible. Not surprisingly, the leadership of the Brotherhood scrambled to distance themselves from his comments. He also – and this may be his biggest problem with the FJP – believes that dawa, or religious activity, must steer clear of politics.

New political parties are springing up almost every day in post-Mubarak Egypt. A group of younger Muslim Brothers, who would like to see more transparency in the election of the Brotherhood leadership, have launched the Egyptian Current Party. At least two conservative Salafist groups have set up official parties. The previously banned organisations al-Jihad and al-Gamaa Islamiyya, which waged terror campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s, have also started their own parties. Until very recently, most of these groups considered engaging in politics a form of fitna (roughly, ‘sedition’). Abou El Fotouh supports the Islamists’ embrace of politics. ‘The more they join the political process, the more they will move away from extremism,’ he told me a few weeks ago, after attending a Salafist rally of 200,000 people in the coastal governorate of Beheira.

As for Abou El Fotouh’s prospects in the presidential race, he commands enormous respect among younger Muslim Brothers, who will make for useful recruits. He is also likely to perform better in rural areas than the liberal, secular Mohamed ElBaradei. Notably, Abou El Fotouh may be the only Islamist who could command the support of liberals and Copts –though the bulk of the Coptic community, already in a panic given rising sectarian tensions, is unlikely to embrace an Islamist president any time soon. In the meantime, conservative secptics in the West and Israel are already describing Abou El Fotouh as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.