Skip to main content

The religious pragmatist who might be Egypt's next president

By Paul Cruickshank, CNN
May 23, 2012 -- Updated 2344 GMT (0744 HKT)
Egyptian presidential candidate Abdelmonen Abol Fotoh waves as he arrives at a polling station to vote in Cairo on Wednesday.
Egyptian presidential candidate Abdelmonen Abol Fotoh waves as he arrives at a polling station to vote in Cairo on Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Abdelmonen Abol Fotoh is running for Egypt's presidency as an independent
  • He was formerly a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Council
  • A 2007 interview with CNN's Paul Cruickshank revealed some of his thinking
  • He was part of the "middle generation" of relatively pragmatic Brotherhood leaders

(CNN) -- Abdelmonen Abol Fotoh, an independent moderate Islamist candidate for the Egyptian presidency, and one many tip to become the country's first freely elected leader, if he gets through this week's first round of voting, has been a busy man these last weeks.

He's been addressing large throngs of voters across Egypt, shuffling between quick fire press interviews, and battling through the capital's congested streets to attend a historic presidential debate ahead of the first round of voting with his closest rival in the polls. (The debate started late; Cairo traffic makes way for no one.)

It has been a mad dash to the ballot box for the avuncular and charismatic former member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Council. The journey would have been scarcely imaginable five years ago when he spoke at length about his political vision for the country in an interview at the Arab Medical Union, where for many years he served as secretary general.

Back then, the Muslim Brotherhood was officially a banned organization, several of his colleagues were spending time in jail, and with Gamal Mubarak being groomed to take over from his father, Hosni Mubarak, the revolution that would later rock Tahrir Square seemed almost unthinkable.

After the fall of the Mubarak regime, Abol Fotoh distanced himself from the Muslim Brotherhood after it initially refused to field a candidate for president. The Brotherhood promptly expelled him and Abol Fotoh declared that he would stand as an independent. He had been frustrated by the fact the Brotherhood, out of caution, had been slow to throw its weight fully behind the Tahrir Square demonstrations.

The 2007 interview, taped at a time when he was free from the constraints of running for political office, and recounted here for the first time, sheds light on the direction he might lead Egypt.

It is a question that has caused much debate during the presidential campaign. Some of his secularist political opponents have alleged that his big tent unity message, support for a pluralistic democratic system and promise to represent the aspirations of all Egyptians across the political spectrum have been a ploy to gain electoral support, and that he will seek to implement an Islamist agenda in office.

"You were a Muslim Brotherhood member and you have sworn bayat [an oath of loyalty] to the head of the organization. Will this mean there will be someone above you?" Amre Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League and onetime foreign minister, asked him during their May 10 presidential debate.

"He uses dual language: He is Salafi with Salafis and is a liberal with liberals, and a centrist with the centrists," Moussa quipped.

The Real Abol Fotoh

When I arrived for my interview with Abol Fotoh on a mild, sunny day in January 2007 at a grand building housing the Arab Medical Union just off a busy Cairo street, I was ushered into a patients' waiting room. Like many other senior Muslim Brotherhood figures, Abol Fotoh had trained as a physician, but much of his time at that point was devoted to running the operations of the Brotherhood in Egypt as one of the group's 16-member Guidance Council.

After a few minutes, I was brought into Abol Fotoh's corner office, a well-furnished room with a couch and large desk. Bespectacled and wearing a gray three-piece suit, he greeted me warmly with a natural charisma and amiability that set him apart from many of his sterner colleagues on the Guidance Council. Throughout the interview he spoke to me in his sometimes halting but expressive English. It was a time when his words were under less scrutiny than they are now. Since becoming a presidential candidate, he has conducted interviews only in Arabic.

Abol Fotoh, born in 1951, was one of five brothers in a large family. He became involved in Islamist activism at the University in Cairo in the 1970s, when he joined a student association belonging to Gamma Islamiya, which was then a growing force on Egyptian campuses. By his own account he left the group before it became involved in wide-ranging violence across Egypt, and eventually joined the Muslim Brotherhood.

Abol Fotoh's former membership in Gamma Islamiya has nevertheless been seized upon by his political opponents because of the large number killed in attacks targeting Egyptian security services, Copts, and secular intellectuals.

"How is he living with this?" Amre Moussa sniped during the presidential debate. Abol Fotoh retorted by saying he always opposed violence and those who committed the violence were the only ones responsible for it.

In 1981 Abol Fotoh was briefly imprisoned during the roundups of Islamists after Anwar Sadat's assassination, and for a month was held in an adjoining cell in the same prison as Ayman al Zawahiri, the future leader of al Qaeda, with whom he had rubbed shoulders at medical school. "He was against our ideas, even when he was a student," Abol Fotoh said, referring to the Brotherhood's disavowal of violence in the 1970s.

In interviews, Abol Fotoh has described how mixing with political activists of all stripes while in prison saw him moderate his own views. He was subsequently jailed several times in the Mubarak era.

Abol Fotoh would go on to become part of the "middle generation" of Muslim Brotherhood leaders who were more pragmatic than some of the old guard who had confronted the Nasser regime in the 1960s and remained skeptical that headway could be made by participating in the country's flawed electoral process.

In the Mubarak era this resulted in an intergenerational compromise on the Guidance Council, which over time slowly tilted toward the priorities of the middle generation. During the past decade this saw the Brotherhood maintaining its social outreach efforts and preaching as some of the old guard favored, while also encouraging its members to contest a limited number of parliamentary seats as independents and for the first time drawing up a political manifesto.

Even among the middle generation of leaders, Abol Fotoh stood out as relative progressive, his worldview broadened by trips he was able to make out of Egypt as the Arab Medical Union's secretary general (few other senior Brotherhood figure were allowed to travel out of the country).

"In the 1970s we entered the student unions, then the syndicates, then the parliament, then all the political and social organizations in our society. This made experience for us and make us find that the peaceful way and the democratic way is the only way to reform in our society, in our state," Abol Fotoh told me.

He soon established himself as the standard-bearer of the reform-minded wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and forged working relationships with leading figures in several secular-liberal opposition parties. "I trust Abol Fotoh. I don't agree with him on everything but I can work with him," Osama al Ghazali, a secular-liberal politician, told me in 2007.

Within the Muslim Brotherhood, Abol Fotoh was particularly popular with the tech-savvy and more cosmopolitan-minded younger generation of members in their 20s, some of whom told me in 2007 they hoped he would one day lead the organization. These younger members tended to be more in favor of politically challenging the Mubarak regime than some of their cautious superiors, and some of their number played a significant role helping to organize the defense of Tahrir Square in early 2011 as thugs hired by the Mubarak regime tried to clear out the protestors. Anecdotal evidence suggests many now support Abol Fotoh's campaign rather than the official Muslim Brotherhood candidate.

"Our campaign depends on the efforts of the youth that works all over the country in a decentralized fashion," Abol Fotoh declared in the debate. One of his most vocal supporters has been Wael Ghonim, a former Google executive who reached worldwide fame after being arrested during the revolution.

"We have to empower the youth; my vice president will be a youth," Abol Fotoh declared, indicating he would chose somebody under 45.

The Egyptian Erdogan?

Although he did not spell out any political program for the country in his 2007 interview, his vision for the type of political system Egypt should have was to a significant degree the same as the one he has outlined on the 2012 presidential campaign trail.

Rather than stressing Islam was always the solution -- a catch-all phrase that had become the slogan of the Brotherhood -- Abol Fotoh's reversed the equation by arguing that wherever there was good governance, sharia law was in effect.

He insisted that sharia, properly interpreted, isn't at odds with pluralistic representative democracy and in fact mandates its introduction.

"The most important thing in Sharia is freedom and justice. [This is] the base of any good government, of any good state," Abol Fotoh told me.

During the presidential debate, Abol Fotoh said he hoped that Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which decrees "the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia)," was maintained. "The country I believe in is a country that is democratic that upholds the Islamic Sharia," he stated.

In the debate he stressed there should be "no interference in the freedom of belief."

"I say vote for me because I call for unity between liberals, Copts, and Islamists," Abol Fotoh said in the debate.

Abol Fotoh's message on religious freedom was consistent with his views five years earlier.

"Citizenship is the base of rights and duties. Any citizen in our country, whatever he is, Muslim, Christian, Communist, Hindu, any religion, we should not discriminate on the basis of religion or ethnicity," he said to me.

Abol Fotoh made it clear in 2007 he was against bringing in new laws in the field of public morality, including for women to wear the veil. "Of course a hijab for a woman is Islamic behavior but I should make the woman satisfied with hijab, not oblige [them to wear it]," he said. "Women have the same rights and the same duties as men, there is no discrimination between them," he told me. It is a message he has repeated on the campaign trail.

In his 2007 interview Abol Fotoh came across as someone much more interested in improving governance than retreading Egypt's culture wars. In the presidential debate he repeatedly stressed that his priorities lay in improving the education system, extending health-care coverage and helping to raise the nation's youth out of unemployment and poverty. His vision for Egypt has been compared by some to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who like Abol Fotoh came to prominence within an Islamist political movement and whose pragmatic pro-growth policies Abol Fotoh told me he admired.

"Of course there is no model. But it could be near for us," he said.

No friend of Israel

One of the most striking features of Abol Fotoh's campaign has been his strongly worded depiction of Israel as an "enemy." Although such rhetoric is unsurprising given the Muslim Brotherhood's Palestinian wing Hamas is still at war with Israel, he has been one of the most hawkish of any of the leading presidential candidates on Israel. Political calculations may have played a role as Abol Fotoh said in the presidential debate he believed "the majority of Egyptians are enemies of the state of Israel."

When it comes to maintaining peace with Israel, Abol Fotoh has signaled he would be guided, like on other issues, by pragmatism. During the presidential debate he said he would seek to revise the terms of the peace deal with Israel, but not tear up the parts of it that were in Egypt's interests.

His election would nevertheless represent a sea change in the relationship between the two countries and represent a significant challenge to a pillar of U.S foreign policy.

Abol Fotoh said in the 2007 interview that he and the Muslim Brotherhood were ready to engage with the United States despite strong disagreement over some of its foreign policy decisions, including the Iraq war.

"America can make all people like her when they stand with the victims against dictatorship and against corruption. We need to [move forward] on the basis of respect of our culture and our respect of their culture. We want this," Abol Fotoh said.

Abol Fotoh has signaled he continues to value a good relationship with the United States during the recent presidential campaign. "Egypt is keen on keeping close relations with all foreign parties, especially the United States," he told Newsweek earlier this week.

One of the factors that may have contributed to Fotouh's tough talk on Israel has been the opportunity to obtain Salafist votes after one of the most prominent Salafist candidates was barred from running. Fotouh received backing several weeks ago from the Salafist Al Nour party, which does not want to see a rival Muslim Brotherhood candidate take power.

Abol Fotoh had previously been critical of Salafis while on the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Council.

"Our ideas our moderate and are nearer to the people than the Salafist ideas. Also the regime encourages the Salafist stream because they like the Salafist stream to be an obstruction to us," he told me in 2007.

Abol Fotoh has consistently made clear his opposition to al Qaeda and those subscribing to its ideology. When I interviewed him in 2007 he said the Bush administration had made the problem worse by supporting the dictatorships in the Middle East, including the Mubarak regime, and encouraging it to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We know that the main cause of terrorism in our Islamic societies is dictatorship and corruption," Abol Fotoh said.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT