According to an unscientific online poll, a new Islamist candidate is gaining steam in Egypt’s presidential race named Mohammed Selim al-Awa. He presents himself as a democratic “reformist” with no political affiliation, but he has made several concerning statements and is suspected by some experts of being the favored candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Facebook page of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which has governed Egypt since the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, has a poll asking respondents who they will vote for in the presidential election. With over 100,000 votes, Mohammed el-Baradei came in first with 35 percent. Mohammed Selim al-Awa came in second. Amr Moussa, considered the strong front-runner, came in fourth. Only one-fifth of the Egyptian population has Internet access, so it is not representative of the population as a whole, but the survey indicates that al-Awa is a force to be reckoned with.
Al-Awa styles himself as a reformer who promotes a moderate, modern version of Islam. He argues that Western democracy is the best representation of the Islamic principle of “shura,” or consultation. He says he promotes critical thinking towards religion, as his father raised him to “question even the interpretation of a Qur’anic verse or a prophetic saying and not to take it for granted. I learned from him to steer away from the dogmatic understanding of religion.”
He opposes the Ground Zero Mosque, arguing “it is not necessary. They can have a center or a mosque anywhere else. It symbolizes nothing. Nobody should want to offend.” Al-Awa rejects the notion that the U.S. is at war with Islam, and has sided with the members of the Muslim Brotherhood who left the organization to form the Wasat Party. He opposes the Iranian-style of governance, and criticizes the Muslim Brotherhood and other political parties because they “indoctrinate blind obedience.”
This does not mean the West should celebrate al-Awa. His father was a follower of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was inspired to become involved in politics because of his father’s discussion groups with Brotherhood members. One meeting, which al-Awa mentions as a defining moment for him, was with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Nazi Muslim who worked closely with Adolf Hitler.
Al-Awa says that his father left the Muslim Brotherhood after it killed civilians, but he does not reject the group’s goals. When asked about the Brotherhood’s objective of establishing an Islamic state based on Sharia law, he said, “I think their project—as defined by Hassan el-Banna…is the project of Prophethood, not of Brotherhood. I mean, it was the project of Islam itself and no one can object to this vision but when it comes to translating it into actions…”
Al-Awa was arrested in 1965 for being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he denies ever being a part of the organization. He wants to preserve Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution, which makes Sharia the principal source of legislation. He is also the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, whose chairman is Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi. Many other Brotherhood members sit on the board of directors. These ties have made some experts believe that he is the Brotherhood’s shadow candidate, as the organization has promised not to field an official candidate.
He has made several other worrisome statements that contradict his credentials as a moderate. In 2006, he praised female suicide bombers targeting Israel. He criticized a fatwa that said women should not become terrorists because their duty is to give birth and raise children. “What if she never gets married?” al-Awa asked. “What is more important: The right of countries to be liberated from the colonialists, or the right of a woman to get married and give birth? If this can be called a right at all, because it may or may not happen…but, Allah be praised, eventually people ignored this fatwa,” he said.
He has also fomented anger and fear toward the Coptic Christian minority and Israel. He said that the Christians are “stocking arms and ammunition in their churches and monasteries,” and alleged that the armed Copts want a civil war in order to divide Egypt. Al-Awa also promotes the idea that Israel is trying to sabotage the Egyptian revolution. Al-Awa has since denied accusing the Copts of stockpiling weapons, and has condemned violence against them.
An al-Awa presidency would also be a major threat to Israel. In discussing the violence between Coptic Christians and Muslims, he said, “I believe very strongly that the ones behind this criminal act are Zionist intelligence agents, whether deceived or deceiving Egyptians, or non-Egyptians.” He proclaimed, “The decline and fall of Israel is closer than people expect since Israel is a cruel and racist entity…we must get ready for the post-demise period.”
It’s appealing for the West to find someone that promotes the idea of compatibility between Islam and Western democracy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the messenger is a friend. A “moderate” who promotes Sharia-based governance, supports suicide bombings and instigates against Israel and Coptic Christians is no “moderate” at all.