A Man for All Seasons

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

In January, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was a long shot to become Egypt’s next president. When I walked into the Islamist candidate’s basement in a far-flung Cairo suburb — which was doubling as a “backup” headquarters — it made me think back to the early, insurgent days of Barack Obama’s campaign, when Hillary Clinton was still the presumptive Democratic nominee. The basement, with its large spare rooms, was packed with young volunteers. It had a chaotic, bustling feel. Aboul Fotouh’s supporters may have hailed from radically different backgrounds, but they believed, above all, in the candidate. They wanted to transcend the old battle lines of “Islamist” or “liberal” and reimagine Egyptian politics in the process.

What those grand ambitions mean in practice is, at times, unclear. As Aboul Fotouh has risen to front-runner status in the first ever competitive presidential election in Egypt’s history, he has become the Rorschach test of Egyptian politics. Liberals think he’s more liberal than he actually is. Conservatives hope he’s more conservative.

It’s an understatement to say that the Aboul Fotouh campaign is a big-tent movement. A former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and, for decades, one of Egypt’s most prominent Islamist figures, he has become the standard-bearer of many of the young liberals who led Egypt’s revolution — including Google executive Wael Ghonim. He is also, however, the preferred candidate of the country’s hard-line Salafi groups, including the al-Nour Party and its parent organization al-Dawa al-Salafiya, one of Egypt’s largest religious movements. This is all the more impressive considering that, unlike the United States or most European countries, the primary political cleavage in Egypt has little to do with economics and much more to do with religion.

Aboul Fotouh’s success stems in part from his ability to neutralize this religious divide. One of his messages — and one that has appeal for liberals and hard-line Islamists alike — is this: We are all, in effect, Islamists, so why fight over it? As he explained to a Salafi television channel in February, “Today those who call themselves liberals or leftists, this is just a political name, but most of them understand and respect Islamic values. They support the sharia and are no longer against it.” In a creative attempt at redefinition, Aboul Fotouh noted that all Muslims are, by definition, Salafi, in the sense that they are loyal to the Salaf, the earliest, most pious generations of Muslims.

Aboul Fotouh is able to make this argument and make it sound convincing, in part because of who he is. He is the rare figure who has been, at various points in his career, a Salafi, a Muslim Brother, and, today, a Turkish-style “liberal Islamist.” In the 1970s, he rose to prominence as a leader and founder of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, the religious movement that wrested control over universities from the once dominant leftists. In his biography, Aboul Fotouh recalls the early Salafi influence on his ideas: He and his fellow students aggressively promoted sex segregation on campus. At one point, they tried to “prove” to the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader at the time, Umar al-Tilmisani, that music was haram, or forbidden by Islam.

Over the course of the decade, Aboul Fotouh developed close relationships with those who would later become the leading lights of Salafi thought. After the 2011 revolution, Aboul Fotouh, then in the process of splitting with the Brotherhood, was one of the few politicians to take Salafists seriously. It helped that he knew them. While the Muslim Brotherhood tended to treat Salafists as immature, younger brothers in the Islamic family, Aboul Fotouh exaggerated their power — he once claimed that Salafists outnumbered Muslim Brothers 20-to-1 — and pledged to seek their vote. Respect, it turns out, can go much further than ideological proximity.

There is a tension, however, between Aboul Fotouh’s sometimes liberal pronouncements and his essentially majoritarian understanding of democracy. When I sat down with Aboul Fotouh for the first time in the summer of 2006, I wanted to understand his philosophy of government, to the extent that he had one. He repeatedly emphasized that the people, represented by a freely elected parliament, are the source of authority. On the thorny question, however, of what Islamists would do if parliament passed an “un-Islamic” law, he dismissed the concern: “The parliament won’t grant rights to gays because that goes against the prevailing culture of society, and if [members of parliament] did that, they’d lose the next election,” he explained. “Whether you are a communist, socialist, or whatever, you can’t go against the prevailing culture. There is already a built-in respect for sharia.”

This notion has a long pedigree in Islamic thought: Prophet Mohammed is believed to have said, “My ummah [community] will not agree on an error.” Likewise, Aboul Fotouh was confident that once Egyptian society was free, the best ideas would rise to the top. There was little need, then, to regulate society from the top down. On their own, without government getting too much in the way, Egyptians would do the right thing. And this would inevitably help Islam. “What happens in a free society?” Aboul Fotouh went on. “I hold conferences and spread my ideas through newspapers and television to try to bring public opinion closer to me.… We have confidence in what we believe.”

If people are looking for a consistent strain in Aboul Fotouh’s thought, it is this: that Islam has already won out and will continue to win out. Islam is a source of unity and national strength rather than one of division. Depending on where exactly an Egyptian voter stands, this is either reassuring and somewhat banal, or mildly frightening, particularly for the country’s Christian minority.

Nevertheless, it is an idea with analogues elsewhere in the region, most notably in Turkey and Tunisia, where “moderate” Islamists came to power by tapping into a religious mainstream that had lost faith in the secular project of previous decades. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, used democratization to strengthen the place of Islam in public life. He embraced European Union accession talks while knowing full well that the required liberal reforms would weaken the military’s influence and empower Islamic currents in a country where the right to openly express religious values had been severely curtailed. In Tunisia, Rached Ghannouchi and his al-Nahda party have backed off from demands that Islamic law be enshrined in the Tunisian Constitution, perhaps knowing that Islamization of Tunisian society is already well under way, regardless of what the Tunisian Constitution says.

Indeed, the same attacks that follow Aboul Fotouh’s counterparts in Turkey and Tunisia will be used against him: that he is a proponent of “stealth Islamization” and that he remains faithful to the project of applying sharia. The critics might be right. If Aboul Fotouh becomes president, there will be a battle — between his liberal, revolutionary supporters and his Islamist backers — over the direction his presidency takes. Now that the major Salafi organizations have endorsed him, they are likely to have significant influence in an Aboul Fotouh administration, pushing his presidency to the right on social and moral issues.

But though Salafists are a critical bloc of support for the Aboul Fotouh campaign, they have little presence in the candidate’s inner circle and campaign organization, which is composed mostly of ex-Muslim Brotherhood members, liberals, and revolutionary youth. One of Aboul Fotouh’s closest aides is Rabab El-Mahdi, a Marxist political science professor, who says her “biggest project” is ending the Islamist-secularist divide and focusing on the bread-and-butter issues that actually matter in people’s lives. Another is the 30-year-old Ali El-Bahnasawy, a self-described liberal who is Aboul Fotouh’s media advisor. He told me that the Salafists’ endorsement was “amazing” and credited them for realizing that “Egypt needs to end the polarization in the country now.” For him, this is the essence of Aboul Fotouh’s appeal. “We need someone,” Bahnasawy said, “who can talk to the Islamists and speak their language and talk to the liberals and gain their trust as well.”

The popularity of Aboul Fotouh’s campaign is partly a reaction to growing polarization in Egypt, where fears abound of an “Algeria scenario” of annulled elections, dissolved parliaments, and military coups. But just as the high hopes of the Obama campaign were dashed by the political compromises inherent in governing, an Aboul Fotouh administration may find it difficult to transcend the basic realities of Egyptian political life. If he wins, his supporters will soon find that the divisions between Egypt’s feuding political currents do not dissipate quickly, if at all.

It is perhaps telling that Aboul Fotouh’s rise comes at a time when religious belief has become an easy substitute for real discussion on economic recovery, security-sector reform, or how to fight income inequality. For the vast majority of Egyptians, the debate over sharia has been utterly beside the point. It is an elite debate and, in some ways, a manufactured one. As Aboul Fotouh will be the first to say, all major political forces support Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that the “principles of the Islamic sharia are the primary source of legislation.” Even the most “secular” party — the Free Egyptians — took to campaigning in rural areas with banners reading “The Quran Is Our Constitution.” Meanwhile, it was the Salafists, and not the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, who entered into serious negotiations over forming a parliamentary coalition with liberal parties. As a senior official in the Salafi al-Nour Party once put it to me, “Here in Egypt, even the liberals are conservatives.”

Sharia has become the “hope and change” of Egyptian politics — all say they like it, but no one quite knows what it means. As the most powerful man in Egypt and with a bully pulpit to match, Egypt’s first revolutionary president will have a fleeting opportunity to redefine the meaning of Islam in public life.

In the introduction to his electoral program, Aboul Fotouh, the candidate, embraces the application of sharia. But there’s a caveat: “The understanding of implementation of Islamic law is not, as some people think, about applying the hudud punishments [such as cutting of the hands of thieves],” the program reads. “In its complete understanding, Islamic law has to do with realizing the essential and urgent needs of humankind.” The program then goes on to list combating poverty and fighting corruption as two fundamental components of applying Islamic law.

For Aboul Fotouh, sharia is both everything and nothing all at once. For now at least, that seems to be exactly the way he wants it.