Why Egyptian Salafists support a liberal Muslim

Is Abdelmonem Aboelfotohh's agenda to implement progressive ideas or sharia law?

Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh  370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Salafi groups in Egypt recently moved to endorse Abdelmonem Aboelfotoh for president, many were surprised at the support for a liberal Muslim rather than the more traditional Mohamed Mursy of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The perception that Aboelfotoh is a non-traditional or possibly liberal Muslim stems from the progressive stances he has taken on a number of social issues. Among the items he has expressed support for are:
• The idea that the stage of Islamic Caliphate has ended and that there is no need to bring it back.
• There should be no punishment for a Muslim if he converts to Christianity.
• He does not see any problem with a Christian or a woman becoming the president of Egypt.
• Publishing any book, irrespective of its content, must be allowed.
• Shiism is an acceptable sect in Islam.
• Manufacturing alcohol should be permissible in Egypt.
• Tourism in its current form that allows women to dress as they wish is permitted.
• People – not Allah - must be the source for authority in the country.
• He has asked Arabs to accept the existence of Israel. (It's worth noting that this move serves Egypt's interests because of the obvious risks of stirring a conflict with its nuclear neighbor.)
• He rejects forcing people to carry out the religious edicts such as praying five times daily and wearing a Hijab.
These beliefs – if they are genuine - would place Aboelfotoh closer to Al-Ghanooshi of Tunisia rather than the Muslim Brotherhood. But Aboelfotoh has made statements which cast doubt on his image as a forward-thinking candidate.  He was asked recently if he would allow western banking systems in the country. His answer: It is not my job as a president to decide, and I will refer such an issue to the religious authorities.
It would be dangerous if economic decisions are based on religious edicts rather than on what is best for the country. Additionally, he has repeatedly said that he does not support the exporting of gas to Israel. This trend toward basing economic decisions on emotion and religion has the potential to be very harmful to the country.
In spite of the above worrying observations, it is surprising to see Salafi groups in Egypt back a liberal Muslim for president rather than a candidate from their traditional ally, the Muslim Brotherhood. Possible factors behind Salafi support for Aboelfotoh include:
• Aboelfotoh moved towards the Salafists rather than the other way around.
•The endorsement is part of an apolitical deal between Aboelfotoh and the Salafi groups. Abdulmeniin Al-Shahat, a leading Salafi scholar in Egypt, said that during a recent meeting between Salafi groups and Aboelfotoh, the candidate promised them he would implement all of Sharia Law and not just its principles. He also said he would fill the government cabinet with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It appears Aboelfotoh is exchanging promises with more conservative groups for their support in the election, and if this is the case, there is little grounds for his classification as a liberal Muslim.
•Salafi groups are trying to improve their public relations by affiliating with Aboelfotoh who is generally well-liked. The Muslim sect's image took a hit after a poor performance in parliament and news that a Salafi member of Parliament lied about his nose operation.
•Fundraising is an additional factor; unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Aboelfotoh is not competing with Salafi groups in raising funds from wealthy Islamic countries. If a member of the Muslim Brotherhood becomes president, it is likely that wealthy Arabs will give donate to the Brotherhood rather than to Salafi groups.
• Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursy does not have the charisma or public appeal of the party's original candidate Khairat Al Shater. Looking at recent poll results, Salafi groups might have wagered that Mursy is likely to fail in the coming election. This could pave the way for liberal candidates such as Amr Moussa or Ahmed Shafik. The pragmatic approach called for ditching the failing horse and supporting Aboelfotoh, ensuring that the regime is pro-Islam rather than against the religion. Aboelfotoh is certainly ideologically closer to Salfists than a liberal.
The recent support of Salafi Islamic groups in Egypt for Aboelfotoh indicates calculation and tactical maneuvering. It does not necessarily mean Salafists are changing their ideology. It could just be the most expedient route to achieving an Islamic agenda.
The writer is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and a one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He was a member of the terrorist organization JI with Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who later became the second-in-command of al-Qaida. He is currently a senior fellow and chairman of the study of Islamic radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.