Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh: Egypt’s next leader?

The former Brotherhood figure insists he holds moderate views; critics claim he’s trying to be all things to all people.

Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh  370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh may well be Egypt’s next president.
The candidate has managed to position himself as a moderate – as he is usually described in Western media – while still winning the endorsements of even the most hard-line of Egypt’s Islamist movements.
This week, Abol Fotouh won the endorsements of Salafi Islamists and al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, an extremist group designated a terrorist organization by the US and EU. But he also won the backing of Wasat (“Center”) – a self-styled moderate Islamist group – and Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who became the face of the young activists who toppled former president Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of protests last year.
Abol Fotouh, 60, is a physician and a former senior Muslim Brotherhood figure who left the group last year after it barred its members from running for president – a decision it later reversed.
A poll released this week by the state-run Al-Ahram Center showed him in second place behind ex-foreign minister Amr Moussa and far ahead of the Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Mursi.
The poll, however, was conducted before the string of endorsements Abol Fotouh received this week. Elections are scheduled for later this month, with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) scheduled to hand over power by July 1.
“The notion that Abol Fotouh is a moderate is a product of Western observers’ best hopes, and not an honest analysis of the man’s biography and record,” said Eric Trager, an Egypt expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Abol Fotouh left the Brotherhood on account of his disagreements with the organization’s political strategy – not because of ideological disagreements. We saw this most clearly after the Maspero Massacre, when Abol Fotouh blamed Copts for protesting at the ‘wrong place and wrong time,’ and also blamed ‘foreign conspiracies.’” Last October, Christian protesters took to Cairo’s streets to demonstrate against the demolition of a church in southern Egypt that authorities said had been built without a license. Troops and security forces attacked the protesters, causing 28 deaths – the majority Coptic Christians.
“Wael Ghonim’s endorsement is a reminder that last year’s revolt was not liberal, but anti-Mubarak,” Trager said. “Of the leading presidential candidates, Abol Fotouh has the strongest anti-Mubarak credentials, because he has been the most persistent critic of the SCAF, which activists like Ghonim correctly see as an extension of the Mubarak regime. They are thus indifferent to his Islamism, because the pursuit of a secularist Egypt was always a secondary goal.”
Abol Fotouh first gained notoriety in Egypt for a Cairo University debate in 1975 with Anwar Sadat, who like his successor Mubarak clamped down hard on organized Islamist activity.
Abol Fotouh, then a medical student, denounced Sadat as a “hypocrite,” prompting the president to demand he be removed. In September 1981 – a month before Sadat’s assassination in Cairo – Abol Fotouh was arrested for membership in an Islamist group and served a short prison sentence.
From 1996 to 2001 he was again imprisoned, this time by the Mubarak regime, for belonging to the Brotherhood.
Upon his release, he became the head of the Arab Medical Union, a pan-Arab grouping of pious and politically active physicians.
In February of last year – days before Mubarak’s resignation and several months before leaving the Brotherhood – Abol Fotouh penned a Washington Post op-ed entitled “Democracy supporters should not fear the Muslim Brotherhood.”
“The Brotherhood has already decided not to field a candidate for president in any forthcoming elections.
We want to set the record straight so that any Middle East policy decisions made in Washington are based on facts and not the shameful – and racist – agendas of Islamophobes,” he wrote.
“Contrary to fear-mongering reports, the West and the Muslim Brotherhood are not enemies. It is a false dichotomy to posit, as some alarmists are suggesting, that Egypt’s choices are either the status quo of the Mubarak regime or a takeover by ‘Islamic extremists,’” he wrote.
In June, aides to Abol Fotouh told the New York Times he supported the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a 2009 interview with Israel’s Channel 2 News, the then-Brotherhood official gave assurances that his movement would respect the treaty with Israel and encourage Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state.
But speaking in Arabic at a press conference this month, Abol Fotouh dismissed the entire interview as a “fabrication.”
Speaking last week on Egyptian television, Abol Fotouh said his views have not changed since his days with the Brotherhood.
“I have not changed my principles or ideas regardless of my administrative link: whether I was Brotherhood or now I am outside the administration of the Brotherhood,” he said.
“I don’t think there is a fair liberal, or a fair Salafi, or a fair leftist, who says Dr. Abdel Moneim says one thing and hides another.”