Egypt Elections: Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotough, The Irresistible Islamist

Khaled Desouki, AFP / Getty Images

He’s on the move again. Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh has finished one interview in a suite at the Movenpick hotel outside Cairo and now he’s squeezing his six-foot frame into a Volkswagen Passat to get to the next thing. A candidate for president, Abou el-Fotouh can’t afford billboard signs or television spots. His campaign doesn’t even have money for polling. So, alongside his rallies and speeches, the 60-year-old Islamist is doing as many radio and television interviews as he can fit into a day. “They don’t cost money and they give him a lot of exposure,” explains his media chief.

For this one, he spends two hours in a cramped radio studio with co-hosts of a pop-music station. It’s not what you would expect from a guy with a prayer welt on his forehead. The music played in the interludes is western and loud. The hosts, both women, are wearing tight-fitting clothes and high heels. But Abou el-Fotouh manages to connect. “I’m a Libra,” he tells them in his introduction, a point he slips in between details about his former membership in the Moslem Brotherhood and his jail sentences during the reign of the previous regime. When one of the hosts identifies herself as a Christian and asks why her community has had to endure second-class status in Egypt, he sounds a decidedly liberal note. “Nations rise only if there is justice. Otherwise there will be no development.”

This week, Egyptians go to the polls to choose their first democratically-elected president from about a dozen candidates. Though they’ve had several other votes in the past year, this is the one that will largely determine the outcome of the country’s dramatic revolution 16 months ago. The young liberals who ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of protests – the bloggers, the tweeters, even that widely-admired Google executive, Wael Ghonim -- have since been sidelined. In the cluster of frontrunners, the battle is now between Islamists and felouls – literally “remnants” of the old regime.

That sharp divide has allowed Abou el-Fotouh, a physician by training who is married to gynecologist, to stand out as a more nuanced character. He certainly is an Islamist. Abou el-Fotouh served for 25 years on the leadership body of Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood – the oldest and most well-organized Islamic group in the region--before parting ways with the group last year.

But he is more liberal and less doctrinaire than the other Islamists in the race – he rejects initiatives to ban alcohol or impose the veil on women, for instance. His vision of Egypt as an Islamic democracy run by technocrats rather than ideologues has prompted comparisons to Turkey and created an aura around Abou el-Fotouh as Egypt’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It has also helped him win some disparate endorsements, from the arch-conservative Salafi party on one side of the political map and from Tahrir leftists on the other, including Ghonim himself. The latest polls show Abou el-Fotouh running neck-and-neck with Amr Moussa, who served for a decade as foreign minister under Mubarak and later as head of the Arab League. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes, a run-off will be held next month.

In an interview with Newsweek, Abou el-Fotouh criticized the United States for supporting Arab dictators over the years and for chronically siding with Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians. Wearing a white shirt a blue tie knotted loosely at the neck, he said Egypt’s 33-year-old peace treaty with Israel would most likely need to be amended, though he could not say what specific changes he envisions.

But he also said he wanted good ties with Washington and a stable border with Israel– the two issues U.S. officials care about most. “Egypt is keen on keeping close relations with all foreign parties, especially the United States…. But it has to be a relationship of respect, based on common interests,” he said through a translator (his English is halting). Abou el-Fotouh said Egypt’s priority would be to restore the economy and alleviate poverty and crime. A war with Israel or a breach in relations with the United States, which provides Egypt nearly $2 billion in annual aid, would undermine those goals. “We don’t need to cause any shocks either internally or externally,” he told me.

A bigger concern might be his troubled relationship with Egypt’s military, a bastion of the old elites and still the most powerful institution in the country. Many Egyptians have turned against the military during its interim rule in the past 16 months, suspecting its leaders of plotting to retain certain powers even after the transition to civilian control. Abou el-Fotouh is seen as the candidate least willing to accommodate them, a position that earns him respect but also raises the specter of instability well into the future. “He could be the president who puts Egypt on a path towards genuine democracy,” says one U.S. official who follows events in the region. “But he could also be the guy who never manages to consolidate power or stabilize the country.”

Egypt Election A clash between protesters and military police in Cairo in early May. Moises Saman / Magnum for Newsweek

By his own admission, Abou el-Fotouh started in politics as an extremist. While studying medicine at Cairo University in the 1970s, he helped found Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya, a far more radical group than the Moslem Brotherhood that remains to this day on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Abou el-Fotouh opposed just about everything that hindered Moslems from practicing the most distilled form of their religion, including movies and sports and men and women studying in the same classrooms. In a memoir he published two years ago, he wrote that as a student radical he didn’t rule out the idea of using violence to achieve political goals (the book appeared only in Arabic but was reviewed in several English-language publications).

He says now that he never resorted to violence. But Abou el-Fotouh did have one aggressive interaction with President Anwar Sadat that got him attention beyond his circle of activists. In late 1977, Sadat invited a group of student leaders to his home for an exchange of ideas, part of Sadat’s dialogue with political opponents. When Abou el-Fotouh, 25 at the time, challenged the president over the dismissal of a certain Moslem preacher widely admired in jihadi circles, the room grew palpably tense. In an audio recording of the exchange, Abou el-Fotouh is heard admonishing Sadat, not quite yelling but pressing his grievance loudly and boldly and occasionally interrupting the president until Sadat loses his temper. “Stand up, stand up! I do not allow this,” Sadat is heard intoning ominously. “You should know your limits.” The scene was later rendered in a popular Egyptian movie on Sadat’s life, helping shape Abou el-Fotouh’s public image as an opposition figure bold enough to confront presidents.

By his own admission, Fotouh started in politics as an extremist.

The incident put Abou el-Fouth on the regime’s watch list and in 1981, a month before Sadat’s assassination, he was rounded up along with hundreds of other activists. In the interview, he told me that interrogators tortured him in prison. The common methods included hanging prisoners by their wrists for hours and administering electric shock. But Abou el-Fotouh says he remembers mainly the political awakening he experienced. His fellow inmates included opposition figures from across the political spectrum -- communists and Nasserists, the leader of Egypt’s Christian community and also Ayman al-Zawahiri, who now heads al-Qaeda. The discussions opened Abou el-Fotouh to other ideas and helped moderate his views. “Sadat had gathered all of us from different political corners, opposing political currents and powers and sat us all together,” he says. “It was one of the good times in my life.” By the time he left prison, Abou el-Fotouh was ascending to the leadership of the Moslem Brotherhood.

Egypt Election Fotouh supporters await his appearance at an event in Cairo earlier this month. Moises Saman / Magnum for Newsweek

The group under Mubarak’s autocratic regime had a unique status: banned but tolerated, with intermittent crackdowns. An unwritten agreement allowed the Brotherhood to help the poor and engage in other social functions so long as it did not try to oust the dictator. Instead, the group adopted a secretive policy of political gradualism -- it would slowly lay the groundwork for running the country without rushing the outcome. Adam Shatz, who has written extensively about the Brotherhood, says it formed a kind of symbiotic relationship with the regime: The Brotherhood needed Mubarak to facilitate its slow rise. Mubarak needed the group in order to show the United States that the only alternative to his autocratic rule was an Islamic takeover. “The result [was] an undeclared power-sharing arrangement between Mubarak and the Brotherhood, a cat and mouse game,” Shatz wrote two years ago in the London Review of Books.

For Abou el-Fotouh, the unspoken collaboration felt wrong. He argued for a more direct approach and for greater transparency, according to Mohammed Habib, a fellow activist in the Brotherhood who has since left the group. When I asked Habib how Abou el-Fotouh handles himself in disagreements over matters of principle, he told me a story from their time in prison together in 1995. Abou el-Fotouh’s wife and son had arrived to the prison for a visit but a few guards moved to cut it short. “He threatened them that whoever is going to shorten the visit, he’ll be very sharp in dealing with them,” Habib said. The guards let the visit run its course.

The tension between Abou el-Fotouh and his colleagues in the Brotherhood came to a head when the protests got underway at Tahrir in January of last year. The Islamic group had not instigated the revolt and its leadership body assessed early on that the young protesters would fail to overthrow the regime. In what is now an embarrassing episode for the group, its leaders met twice with Mubarak’s representatives to forge a compromise that would end the protests and leave the regime intact. Abou el-Fotouh says he opposed the meetings from the outset and criticized his colleagues for engaging at all. He separated from the group within months and launched his bid for president as an independent candidate.

Though the Brotherhood has since mounted vicious attacks on him, some Egyptians see the separation as artificial and accuse Abou el-Fotouh of downplaying his Islamist tendencies. Said Sadek, a political sociologist at the American University in Cairo who helped lead the protests last year, says electing Abou el-Fotouh would be tantamount to creating a theocratic state. “He didn’t renounce the ideas of the Moslem Brotherhood even when he was jailed by Mubarak,” says Sadek . “You’re telling me he’s different now?” He said he felt that Islamists – who won nearly 70 percent of parliamentary seats in elections last fall and winter -- had hijacked the revolution.

A more accurate version of the metaphor is that liberals got the plane off the ground in an astonishing burst of energy and perseverance, only to watch a majority of passengers hand Islamists the controls. The one presidential candidate who genuinely spoke for the liberals, Mohamed ElBaradei, never polled higher than a few percentage points and eventually left the race. “They discovered that to start a revolution in not to own it,” wrote Shatz in the London Review of Books earlier this year. “Egypt – in its conservative, pious, traditional aspect – didn’t recognize itself in the largely middle-class, internet-savvy Tahrir groupuscules… If this was liberalism, most Egyptians wanted no part of it.”

But can Abou el-Fotouh run Egypt? The comparison to Turkey is in many ways apt. Both countries are regional powers with great histories. Both have militaries that see themselves as part of the country’s governing structure: entitled to its resources but exempt from its laws. In Turkey’s case it took decades for civilian leaders to finally wrest control from the generals, a period marked by coups and instability. Even now, the relationship is fraught. In Egypt, the military will want certain guarantees from whoever wins the election, including immunity from prosecution over bloody crackdowns and other crimes of the past year and little or no oversight of its budget. Formulating a response will be the new president’s biggest challenge.

Editor’s note: an abbreviated version of this piece ran in the May 28, 2012 issue of Newsweek.