An Islamist wolf in moderate clothing.
Egypt, the original heart of the Arab Spring, goes to the polls this Wednesday and Thursday to elect a new president, and the Obama administration’s favored choice, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, may emerge the victor. “He could be the president who puts Egypt on a path towards genuine democracy,” says one U.S. official. But the self-styled “liberal” Islamist is no moderate.
One of the two front-running candidates (along with Amr Moussa, 75, a former foreign minister under Mubarak and most recently secretary-general of the Arab League), Fotouh, 61, is a doctor and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political party took nearly 50 percent of the seats in parliamentary elections and is the best-organized political force in the country. He served for 25 years in the Brotherhood’s leadership body before being expelled last year when he defied the group’s leaders to run for the presidency.
Fotouh is described as a reformist member of the organization, and as such has received support from younger Brothers, even though the Brotherhood is putting forth its own candidate, Mohammed Morsi. Fotouh is viewed as more liberal than the other Islamists in the race, prompting comparisons to Turkey’s Recep Erdogan. That would be the same Erdogan who proclaimed that “there is no moderate Islam,” who advised Turkish immigrants in Europe that “assimilation is a crime against humanity,” who has taken an increasingly bellicose stance toward Israel – and who is a favorite of Obama in the Middle East.
“Aboul Fotouh has said that he wants to be the Erdogan of Egypt, and I think that U.S. relations with Turkey may be a good example of what we could expect,” says Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. In that case, what we can expect is an increasingly militant fundamentalist regime hostile to Israel.
In addition to some Muslim Brothers, Fotouh has also received support from ultra-fundamentalist Salafis, who are competing with the Brotherhood. Since the Arab Spring revolution, the Salafis won nearly a quarter of the parliamentary seats, surprising the unprepared Brothers with their strong showing.
Now, in response to the success of Fotouh’s campaign and his Salafi backing, the Brotherhood has ramped up its religious rhetoric to draw Salafis to Morsi’s support. At a recent rally near Cairo University, speaker after speaker cast Morsi as the only true Islamist candidate and the one who would ensure the implementation of sharia. The clear message is that Fotouh is not Islamic enough.
They need not be concerned about that. An avowed radical in his youth, Fatouh helped found the terrorist organization Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya, which now endorses his candidacy, and spent five years in Mubarak’s prisons alongside such figures as al Qaeda’s Dr. al-Zawahiri. Newsweek points out that some Egyptians are casting a suspicious eye on his split from the Brotherhood, and are accusing Fotouh of downplaying his Islamist tendencies.
The Washington Institute’s Eric Trager, who interviewed him last year, said that “the notion that Aboul Fotouh is some kind of progressive is farcical.” Said Sadek, a political sociologist at the American University in Cairo, says electing Fotouh would be the equivalent of establishing 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?”
GLORIA Center Middle East expert Barry Rubin notes that the Obama administration is unconcerned about Aboul Fotouh’s aggressively Islamist comments – for example, that Israel is racist, an enemy of Egypt, and an illegitimate occupier – as mere “campaign rhetoric.” The assumption is that the reality of governance will make a moderate out of Fotouh, as it does for American politicians. Rubin points out that similar wishful thinking about extremists has never played out that way historically in the real world.
In an interview last year, Aboul Fotouh apparently betrayed himself as a 9/11 “truther”; he was quoted as claiming about the 9/11 attacks that “It was too big an operation… They [the United States] didn’t bring this crime before the U.S. justice system until now. Why? Because it’s part of a conspiracy.” Needless to say, it doesn’t bode well for Egypt-U.S. relations to be dealing with an Arab conspiracy theorist.
In an al-Jazeera interview, Fotouh called for the Brotherhood to work toward full legalization and transparency, but he claims that he is “against the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in party politics. The Brotherhood should not become a political party nor should it have a political party.” At the same time, he also believes that “none of the Brotherhood’s goals or their practices are illegitimate. In fact, their aims and their methods are very much legitimate.”
Questioned in the interview about what kind of state Egypt would be under his leadership, Fotouh played up his liberal side:
First, Islam does not recognize a theocratic state… 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...
Asked how such an Islamic state would relate to its Christian or atheist citizens, he replied that an Islamic state embraces all its citizens, and said an Egyptian Christian would enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as a Muslim: “There is no difference. Islam does not discriminate based on gender, religion, color, and the new constitution must not either.” On a radio show, one of the hosts identified herself as Christian and asked about the second-class status of her people in Egypt; he responded vaguely, “Nations rise only if there is justice. Otherwise there will be no development.”
About Egypt’s relation with Israel, he replied that his country would maintain its treaty with Israel, “but it will be revised. The articles in it which are in Egypt’s interests will be kept, and those that are detrimental to Egypt’s interests will be taken out.” So much for compromise.
As Egypt’s election date arrives, Western observers are optimistic that Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh’s moderate nature will prevail – just as they once were optimistic about the moderate nature of the Arab Spring.
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