Many liberal critiques directed at presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh disregard his political platform, while focusing solely on the fact that he was an ikhwan — a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Following the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ continuous crackdown on revolutionaries and the Islamist takeover of Parliament, liberals in Egypt have been frustrated and feel increasingly marginalized from the political sphere. Egypt’s liberals and revolutionaries believed that Mohamed ElBaradei would be the last, dim of hope for instilling real democratic change, only for ElBaradei himself to snuff that light out when he quit his presidential campaign.
The Brotherhood-Salafi parliamentary victory is only a symptom of a larger problem that continues to elude liberals in Egypt: The enforced secularization of the Middle East has largely been a failure. Secularism, along with liberalism, has come to be associated with the failings of the previous regime at best and godless libertines at worst.
Borne out of this climate of fragmentation and defeat, it is important to examine how some liberals formulate their critique of Abouel Fotouh. This criticism usually centers on his past as a leading figure in the Brotherhood, and that’s where it usually stops. In this line of critique, there is often no attempt to point out differences between Islamists and no mention of his political platform nor a close look at how he came to fall out of favor among the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau.
To reject Abouel Fotouh for his association with the Brotherhood is to make the mistake that the Muslim Brotherhood is some kind of monolithic entity, free from internal disputes. This is certainly the image the Brotherhood tries to project, but its insistence that those who endorse Abouel Fotouh face expulsion should raise red flags. We would do well to understand that there is an ongoing struggle within the Brotherhood, and that the outcome of such a struggle carries profound implications on Egypt’s future polity.
The Brotherhood leadership’s act of casting out its followers for supporting Abouel Fotouh points to a larger ideological fall out within the group. This break was publicized when he was expelled from the Guidance Bureau following the Brotherhood’s controversial elections that empowered the Salafi-influenced conservative elements of the group, as reported by Husam Tammam, an Egyptian researcher on Islamist movements. Abouel Fotouh has been known since 2004 as a reformer within the Brotherhood, advocating more openness and transparency within the organization. Reformers like Abouel Fotouh also pushed for the Brotherhood’s support for the protest movement in Egypt prior to the revolution. This power struggle within the Brotherhood has been in the works long before the January 25 revolution, and its stakes are now more important than ever.
Abouel Fotouh represents everything the conservative Brotherhood leadership fears: a liberal Islamist who defied their direct control and who enjoys both broad popular support as well as being well-liked among the Brotherhood’s own ranks, especially its youth. As reported recently by Al-Dostour, an internal poll of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party shows strong support for Abouel Fotouh among party members. Abouel Fotouh’s candidacy thus poses one of the greatest threats to the current Brotherhood leadership’s ascension to power.
So what are Abouel Fotouh’s liberal stances, exactly?
Abouel Fotouh was a member of the Kefaya movement since its inception in 2003, calling for Mubarak to step down from power. He is also a head of the Arab Medical Union, one of the organizations that set up the badly needed makeshift field hospitals in Tahrir during the January uprising. In terms of his stances on religious freedom, Abouel Fotouh has gone farther than any candidate, openly stating that apostasy should not be punishable by death.
Abouel Fotouh can say that the Brotherhood should never have formed a political party and still enjoy the support of a large swath of Brotherhood members who fall outside the thrall of the group’s ruling clique, headed by Khairat al-Shater, who some speculate might be Egypt’s next prime minister. His support within Islamist circles, coupled with his liberal rhetoric and criticisms of SCAF, is precisely what makes Abouel Fotouh the most subversive candidate in challenging the conservative military-Islamist power centers.
As liberals, we should be the first and not the last to embrace a candidate who has no ties to the former regime, is consistent in his criticism of both SCAF and the Brotherhood leadership, and still manages to bring together a vast array of people from different political, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. More important, Abouel Foutouh campaign’s significance lies in the fact that it presents liberal ideals in an “Islamist” garb, which seems to be the only way to make liberalism palatable to the electorate.
Finally, as SCAF and the Brotherhood scramble to negotiate a backroom deal consensus candidate to shove down our throats, grassroots support from across the political spectrum is coalescing around Abouel Fotouh as possibly Egypt’s true consensus candidate. His candidacy offers Egypt’s liberals a much-needed second wind through a possible victory in the presidential race.