The religious pragmatist who might be Egypt's next president

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
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.