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Confounding expectations: Support from Islamists for liberal upends race in Egypt

Egypt’s most conservative Islamists backed a dissident ex-leader of the Muslim Brotherhood for president, confounding expectations about the Islamist movement.
Image: Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh
Egypt's main missionary and political groups of the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, threw their support behind Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (above) a dissident former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood known for his tolerant and inclusive view of Islamic law. Amr Nabil / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

Egypt’s most conservative Islamists endorsed a liberal Islamist for president late Saturday night, upending the political landscape and confounding expectations about the internal dynamics of the Islamist movement.

The main missionary and political groups of the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, threw their support behind Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a dissident former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood known for his tolerant and inclusive view of Islamic law.

The endorsement goes a long way toward making Mr. Aboul Fotouh the front-runner in a campaign that could shape the ultimate outcome of the revolt that ousted the former strongman, Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Aboul Fotouh’s liberal understanding of Islamic law on matters of individual freedom and economic equality had already made him the preferred candidate of many Egyptian liberals.

His endorsement on Saturday by the Salafis now makes him the candidate of Egypt’s most determined conservatives, too. Known for their strict focus on Islamic law, the Salafis often talk of reviving medieval Islamic corporal punishments, restricting women’s dress and the sale of alcohol, and cracking down on heretical culture.

The decision was announced by officials of the preaching group the Salafi Call and on the Web site of its allied party, Al Nour. Neither group gave a definitive reason for their pick.

But Salafi leaders described their decision in part as a reaction against the presidential candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful and established Islamist group that now dominates Parliament. Though more moderate than the Salafis, the Brotherhood also favors the fashioning of an explicitly Islamic democracy in Egypt, and on social and cultural issues the group is closer to the Salafis than Mr. Aboul Fotouh is.

But in television interviews on Saturday night, some Salafis said they believed the Brotherhood’s current candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was weaker than either Mr. Aboul Fotouh or the Brotherhood’s original nominee, Khairat el-Shater. Others said the group was wary of giving a monopoly on political power to the Brotherhood, which recently abandoned its pledge not to seek control of the presidency as well as the Parliament.

Abdel Moneim El Shahat, a spokesman for the Salafi group, acknowledged a big difference with Mr. Aboul Fotouh over his understanding of a verse of the Koran declaring, “There is no compulsion in religion,” which he interprets to mean that the state should not compel people to follow religious rules. But such compulsion “in reality is not possible now” in any case, Mr. Shahat said.

Leading Salafis hinted in recent days that they did not expect quick fulfillment of their goals for a state governed by Islamic law. Instead , they wanted a president who could deal with Egypt’s pressing needs while allowing them freedom to preach and advocate.

“We don’t want the sheik of Islam,” Sheikh Hassan Omar, a Salafi leader and lawmaker in the upper house of Parliament from the Delta province of Behaira, said this week as Mr. Aboul Fotouh was campaigning nearby.

But the Salafi endorsement also appeared to provide an unexpected validation for Mr. Aboul Fotouh’s argument that mixing preaching and politics would be “disastrous” for both Islam and Egypt, as he put it in an interview last week with El Rahma, a major Salafi satellite channel.

Mr. Aboul Fotouh, a physician who led the Brotherhood-dominated medical association, was a founder of a 1970s student movement that revitalized Islamist politics here. He was expelled from the Brotherhood last year for defying the decision of its leaders to bar members from running for president or engaging in politics outside its own political party.

Although the Salafis are more conservative on many cultural issues, they also typically disapprove of the Muslim Brotherhood’s emphasis on internal obedience and orthodoxy.

In recent interviews with Salafi satellite networks, Mr. Aboul Fotouh has explained that his candidacy and his expulsion from the Brotherhood are part of a larger dispute over whether in a democratic Egypt the Brotherhood should control its own political party, or instead go back to its roots in preaching and charity while its members apply their own values to political life.

In some interviews, he has alluded to threats to the credibility of religious leaders in the unseemly day-to-day of political life, ranging from the appearance of compromises in the interest of power to more vivid embarrassments like the recent case of a Salafi lawmaker who was caught fabricating a beating by unknown assailants to cover up a nose job.

“The overlap between what’s partisan politics and what’s missionary is disastrous for the religious mission and a disaster for the party as well,” Mr. Aboul Fotouh said of the Brotherhood in the El Rahma interview. “They will see in the future the result of this threat, which is a threat to the homeland and to religion.”

And if his conclusions often seem strikingly liberal, Mr. Aboul Fotouh also speaks fluently in the language of Salafis. He has talked at greater length and in greater detail about what Islamic law demands than the other Islamist candidates, including those of the Muslim Brotherhood, who fear alarming moderates. Among other things, he often argues that the first priorities in advancing Islamic law should be individual freedom and social justice.

Addressing a rally of thousands in this Salafi stronghold in the Nile Delta this week, he argued that Egyptian Muslims were not waiting for a president to teach them to follow their faith. They wanted a president to develop their agriculture and industry, as he said Islamic law also required.

“Whoever sleeps full while his neighbor is hungry is not a believer,” he declared, quoting the Prophet Muhammad.

Those appeals may have touched on a difference in social class between the Brotherhood and the Salafis. The Brotherhood skews to the middle and business classes; its leaders often hold advanced degrees in law, medicine or science. Its platform emphasizes business-friendly free-market economics, and Brotherhood leaders sometimes sound condescending toward the less sophisticated or less politically experienced Salafis.

Salafi politicians, on the other hand, are often local preachers close to their village constituents. And rather than selling puritanism, they practice a brand of populism that plays more on the resentments of poor Egyptians toward the cosmopolitan elite, potentially including leaders of the Brotherhood.

The Salafis also lead a broad grass-roots network of preaching and social service groups, which makes their support a powerful asset. They won about a quarter of the seats in recent parliamentary elections, and since their own standard-bearer was disqualified on a technicality about two weeks ago, they have emerged as a coveted swing vote.

Mr. Aboul Fotouh, who spent more than six years in jail for his Brotherhood leadership, brought to the competition for the Salafi vote a special authenticity. Many Salafi leaders came out of the Islamist student movement that Mr. Aboul Fotouh led in the 1970s, before he and some others from the student group joined and revitalized the Brotherhood.

In another appearance on the channel El Rahma, he laughed out loud at a request to introduce himself to Salafi viewers.

“Some of these leaders I hold dear since the days of the 1970s,” he said. “One of them was joking with me and said to me, ‘We will never forget, sir, that you were our emir,’ which is the term we used to use in the ’70s. So it’s impossible to say the Salafi movement doesn’t know Dr. Abdel Moneim!”

This article, " Support From Islamists for Liberal Upends Race in Egypt," first appeared in The New York Times.