With its own candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, disqualified by the election commission, Egypt’s Salafist political party, al-Nour, has endorsed former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh for the presidency. While being called a “moderate” by many news outlets, Fotouh’s radical past and a questionable interpretation of Islam’s dedication to equality and tolerance presents a problem for both the West and Egypt’s more liberal and secular voters.
The endorsement came on the heels of a bloody confrontation between hundreds of supporters of Ismail who were staging a sit-in in front of the defense ministry and unknown assailants on Saturday night. The official statement on the riot said that 91 protestors were injured with no fatalities. But an independent group of doctors who treated protestors at the scene say that 4 protestors were killed and more than 70 were injured.
The protests were just one in a series of demonstrations against military rule in recent weeks that have reignited passions on the streets of Cairo and given rise to an Islamist power play in parliament. The speaker of the lower house, Saad el-Katatni, announced that parliament was suspending its sessions until May 6, protesting the refusal of the military government to replace the cabinet of Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri. Within hours of that announcement, the military apparently caved in to the demands of the Islamist majority and agreed to replace cabinet ministers with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and representatives of other parties in parliament.
The endorsement of Fotouh, a so-called “moderate” Islamist, will likely further split the Salfists who have been at sea since the unexpected disqualification of Abu Ismail, a popular TV cleric whose bombastic sermons against Israel and the West were popular among the extremists who make up the Nour party. While the backing of Nour will no doubt give a boost to Fotouh’s candidacy, the move has also disillusioned many in the party who want a president who will immediately impose Sharia law and transform Egypt into a fundamentalist Islamic state.
Objections by liberals and secularists to the unilateral decision of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to prorogue parliament went unheeded despite nearly 80 lawmakers signing a letter to el-Katatni calling on the speaker to rescind the order to suspend the lower house, or the People’s Assembly. The letter contained the complaint that the decision had not been put to a vote by the full chamber. Members who objected remained in their seats, refusing to leave even after the session was adjourned.
But the protest was a sideshow to the real drama – a tense confrontation between the FJP and its allies, and the military. Both sides appear to be testing the limits of their power in post-Mubarak Egypt. The military is seeking to reduce the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, fearing that the FJP would take away many of the perks and power of the soldiers under a new, Brotherhood-written constitution. The FJP, with the backing of the revolutionary street, has been flexing its muscles in parliament by trying to undercut military rule and shoulder its way into the government. The ruling military council led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has often found itself at odds with the Islamists, but is so politically unpopular that any pushback is immediately met with large protests in Tahrir Square. The army has the guns, but the Brotherhood has the backing of the people. Tantawi has not forgotten what happened to Mubarak, hence, he has taken a cautious approach in handling parliament.
The Islamists have been calling on the military government to fire the cabinet for weeks. They have threatened to stage a no-confidence vote in the el-Ganzouri government despite threats from the military that such a vote was illegal, that only the military council had the power to remove ministers. This latest ploy by the FJP to suspend parliament for a week has apparently moved Tantawi to give in to some of the demands and bring Islamists and others into the government. But an unidentified spokesman for the military said on Sunday night that any changes to the cabinet would be “limited.” This will likely not sit well with the FJP
In suspending parliament, el-Katatni said, “It is my responsibility as speaker of the People’s Assembly to safeguard the chamber’s dignity and that of its members. There must be a solution to this crisis.” On April 24, parliament rejected the military’s economic and political program, which is akin to a “no confidence” vote in many parliamentary democracies. But neither side apparently wants to test the other in what would be a dangerous showdown between the two competing power centers in Egypt.
The Salafists, while still allied with the FJP, find themselves in disarray as a result of their charismatic leader’s ousting from the presidential race. Many members of the Nour party plan to stay at home on election day, while others complain that they are being marginalized by the Muslim Brotherhood. Still others want the movement to give up on politics and concentrate on reforming society so that it reflects fundamentalist Muslim tenets. There have been several resignations from the Nour party in recent months reflecting these feelings.
That’s why the Nour party backing of Fotouh is more a tactical move than related to any particular stand on the issues by the former Brotherhood member. Nour, as any political party, wants to back a winner and Fotouh is emerging as one of the favorites among the 13 remaining candidates for the presidency. While the FJP candidate, Mohammed Mursi, won the endorsement of the ultra-conservative clerical association, the Jurisprudence Commission for Rights and Reforms, the Nour party leadership went with Fotouh as a hedge against what they see as the growing dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood — an organization they see as too eager to acquire political power.
Fotouh is being described as a “progressive,” or a “liberal” by most news organizations. And in Egyptian society, one might say that this was accurate, although he would be an ultra-conservative candidate — even in some Arab countries. His claim to “moderation” arises partly from the fact that he was kicked out of the Muslim Brotherhood for announcing his intention to run for the presidency of Egypt. At the time, the Brotherhood had forsworn fielding a candidate for that office, a decision that was reversed only recently.
But Fotouh has some other moderate credentials that appeal to liberals and secularists. His main disagreement with the Muslim Brotherhood centers on his belief that the Brotherhood should not have entered the political fray. Fotouh told al-Jazeera that he was “against the Muslim Brotherhood's participation in party politics.” Further,
The Brotherhood should not become a political party nor should it have a political party. Because its founder, Hassan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood as an Islamic social welfare movement which raises awareness of Islam without competing for government…. It is wrong to mix this missionary and awareness-raising work with party politics[.]
In addition to this, Fotouh has appealed to the liberal parties with his talk of a pluralistic, diverse approach to government. “His vision for Egypt is a civic state on an Islamic basis,” reports al-Jazeera:
A civilian state according to Islamic thought must have a constitution written by the people which defines the roles and responsibilities of all authoritative bodies. You can call this a modern state, a civilian state, a democratic state…. Islam does not discriminate based on gender, religion, color and the new constitution must not either. The appointment of people to office or other government jobs must be based on merit and capability and not gender or religion or even political inclination.
To Western ears, Fotouh’s words are incomprehensible. Islam does not discriminate based on gender? Or religion? This would come as news to the hundreds of millions of Muslim women denied even basic protections under Islamic law, as well as Coptic Christians in Egypt who have seen their churches burned, their clergy murdered, and their religious practices legally barred by Islamic clerics.
Perhaps that’s how the liberals and more secular elements of Egyptian politics see Islam. But even many of the moderate parties don’t entirely trust Fotouh which is why some of them are backing the candidacy of former Mubarak foreign minister and head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa.
Fotouh’s path to “moderation” is a strange one. In the 1970s, he was a revolutionary Islamist who believed that violence was permissible in order to establish an Islamic state. He was a member of a violent cell, al-Gamaat al-Islamiyah, but has since renounced his participation in that group and condemned its members for their intolerance and “intellectual terrorism.”
According to a BBC profile, he claims that contact with the Muslim Brotherhood “moderated his views.”
His campaign program is moderate in tone. According to the BBC:
His plans include establishing a minimum standard income, restoring security within 100 days of taking office, re-equipping the Egyptian military from sources not funded by the United States and appointing a young vice-president, aged under 45.
He also wants to establish an anti-discrimination body that would represent religious and ethnic minorities in employment and education. Despite writing in the Washington Post the West should not fear the rise of Islamism in Egypt, he has brushed aside questions about the peace treaty with Israel, saying, “It was being given excessive attention and that the future of Egypt did not depend on it.”
The military would probably accept Fotouh if he were elected, given his standing as someone independent of the Muslim Brotherhood. But that doesn’t mean he would be any more “moderate” than any other Islamist whose stated goal of destroying Israel remains unchanged.