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In Egypt Presidential Race: Battle Joined on Islam’s Role

April 26, 2012 by  


By David D. Kirkpatrick

2012-04-24T221605Z_640521016_GM1E84P0HNW01_RTRMADP_3_EGYPT-PRESIDENCY-ABOLFOTOUH

Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh speaks during an interview with Reuters in Cairo April 24, 2012. The leading Islamist candidate said on Tuesday he was confident he would win enough votes in Egypt’s first real presidential election to seal victory in the first round, and said anybody associated with Hosni Mubarak was unfit to lead.

REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

CAIRO — He has argued for barring women and non-Muslims from Egypt’s presidency on the basis of Islamic law, or Shariah. He has called for a council of Muslim scholars to advise Parliament. He has a track record of inflammatory statements about Israel, including repeatedly calling its citizens “killers and vampires.”

Mohamed Morsi is also a leading candidate to become the country’s next president.

Mr. Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s dominant Islamist group, declared last week that his party platform amounted to a distillation of Islam itself.

“This is the old ‘Islam is the solution’ platform,” he said, recalling the group’s traditional slogan in his first television interview as a candidate. “It has been developed and crystallized so that God could bless society with it.” At his first rally, he led supporters in a chant: “The Koran is our constitution, and Shariah is our guide!”

One month before Egyptians begin voting for their first president after Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Morsi’s record is escalating a campaign battle here over the place of Islam in the new democracies promised by the Arab Spring revolts.

Mr. Morsi, who claims to be the only true Islamist in the race, faces his fiercest competition from a more liberal Islamist, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a pioneering leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was expelled from the group in June for arguing for a more pluralistic approach to both Islam and Egypt. He is campaigning now as the leading champion of liberal values in the race.

Both face a third front-runner, the former foreign minister Amr Moussa, who argued this week that Egypt cannot afford an “experiment” in Islamic democracy.

The winner could set the course for Egypt’s future, overseeing the drafting of a new constitution, settling the status of its current military rulers, and shaping its relations with the West, Israel and its own Christian minority. But as the Islamists step toward power across the region, the most important debate may be the one occurring within their own ranks over the proper agenda and goals.

Mr. Morsi’s conservative record and early campaign statements have sharpened the contrast between competing Islamist visions. The Brotherhood, the 84-year-old religious revival group known here for its preaching and charity as well as for its moderate Islamist politics, took a much softer approach in the official platform it released last year. It dropped the “Islam is the solution” slogan, omitted controversial proposals about a religious council or a Muslim president and promised to respect the Camp David accords with Israel. Its parliamentary leaders distanced themselves from the Salafis, ultraconservative Islamists who won a quarter of the seats in Parliament.

The Brotherhood’s original nominee was its leading strategist, Khairat el-Shater, a businessman known for his pragmatism. He had close personal ties to Salafi leaders, but he did not leave much of a paper trail besides an opinion column in a Western newspaper stressing the Brotherhood’s commitment to tolerance and democracy. Mr. Shater was disqualified last week because of a past conviction at a Mubarak-era political trial. In his short-lived campaign he stressed the Brotherhood’s plans for economic development and rarely, if ever, brought up Islamic law.

By contrast, Mr. Morsi, 60, is campaigning explicitly both as a more conservative Islamist and as a loyal executor of Mr. Shater’s plans. He campaigns with Mr. Shater under a banner with both their faces, fueling critics’ charges that he would be a mere servant of Mr. Shater and the Brotherhood’s executive board.

But Mr. Morsi is also courting the ultraconservative Salafis, whose popular candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, was also disqualified. Mr. Morsi may be tacking to the right to court the Salafis as a swing vote in the contest with Mr. Aboul Fotouh, or he may merely be expressing more conservative, older impulses within the Brotherhood.

“Some want to stop our march to an Islamic future, where the grace of God’s laws will be implemented and provide an honest life to all,” he proclaimed Saturday night at his first rally, in a Nile delta town.

“Our Salafi brothers, the Islamic group, we are united in our aims and Islamic vision. The Islamic front must unite so we can fulfill this vision.”

Although he received a Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Southern California in 1982, Mr. Morsi spent the past decade as a public spokesman for the Brotherhood’s political wing, where he left a far more extensive and controversial record than Mr. Shater did. Last year, for example, Mr. Morsi led a boycott of a major Egyptian cellphone company because its founder, Naguib Sawiris, a Coptic Christian, had circulated on Twitter a cartoon of Mickey Mouse in a long beard with Minnie in a full-face veil — a joke Mr. Morsi said insulted Islam.

When the Brotherhood first considered trying to start a political party under Mr. Mubarak, in 2007, Mr. Morsi was in charge of drafting a hypothetical platform. One provision called for restricting the presidency to Muslim men. “The state which we seek can never be presided over by a non-Muslim,” he said at the time on the group’s Web site, arguing that the Brotherhood wanted both a tolerant constitutional democracy and an expressly “Islamic state.”

In “a state whose top priorities include spreading and protecting the religion of Allah,” he said, Islam assigned the president some duties and powers that “can’t be carried out by a non-Muslim president.”

Another provision called for a council of scholars to advise Parliament on fidelity to Islamic law. But unlike Iran’s Guardian Council, he said, it would be independent of the state, and its findings would be nonbinding.

Mr. Morsi also brings to the race a reputation as an enforcer of Brotherhood rules of obedience, even in politics. When a group of young online activists known as the Brotherhood bloggers argued that the platform Mr. Morsi oversaw contradicted the group’s stated commitment to pluralism, Mr. Morsi met with a group of them at his office.

“He said, ‘This is the Muslim Brothers’ interpretation of Islam, and this is Islam, and it’s nobody else’s business,’ ” recalled Mohamed Ayyash, a former Brotherhood blogger who helped organize the meeting.

“He said: ‘You can’t talk like that. You can’t talk to the media.’ ”

“He said, ‘This is Islam the way the Muslim Brotherhood sees it,’ ” Mr. Ayyash recalled. (The Morsi campaign declined to comment on the meeting.)

Mohamed Habib, a former deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood who years ago appointed Mr. Morsi to oversee its political arm, said, “There is no doubt that Morsi is more conservative than the conservatives” in the Brotherhood, including Mr. Shater.

The presidential race is now shaping up in some ways as a rematch of the internal debate over that hypothetical platform. Mr. Aboul Fotouh, Mr. Morsi’s current opponent in the presidential race, was one of the few Brotherhood leaders who openly opposed the scholars council and presidency restrictions. Two years later, he was removed from the executive board in a conservative purge.

While Mr. Morsi has the Brotherhood’s organization behind him, Mr. Aboul Fotouh is considered more charismatic and carries strong Islamist credentials. While Mr. Morsi was working toward his engineering degree in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, Mr. Aboul Fotouh was founding an Islamist student movement that went on to merge with and revitalize the more established Muslim Brotherhood. He stood up to former President Anwar el-Sadat in a face-to-face confrontation at Cairo University.

Mr. Aboul Fotouh, a physician, also led the Brotherhood-dominated doctors’ syndicate, which ran the field hospitals during the protests that toppled Mr. Mubarak last year.

Addressing a crowd of thousands last week in Imbaba, a poor neighborhood of Cairo, Mr. Aboul Fotouh all but brushed off questions about Islamic law.

“Egypt has been proud of its Islamic and Arabic identity for 15 centuries,” he said. “Are we waiting for the Parliament to convert us?”

Besides, he said, the correct understanding of Islamic law should not be reduced to penalties or restrictions but should mean “all mercy and justice.”

As at many stops, Mr. Aboul Fotouh was also asked to confront rumors circulated in an online video — by Brotherhood operatives, his supporters charge — that if elected president, he would order the arrest of all the group’s members.

After the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak, Mr. Aboul Fotouh said, the Egyptian public would never allow another president to detain Islamists, leftists or anyone else for political reasons. “If he did this, the Egyptian people would be the ones to detain him!”

As for his former colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Aboul Fotouh said he believed that they should be treated just like any other nonprofit group. “They have to be legal associations and to work with transparency and clarity,” he said repeatedly. “All associations and all parties are equal before the law.”

To the Brotherhood, though, it was also a threat. The enforcement of Western-style financial and disclosure requirements could force the Brotherhood to separate its political party from its charitable and preaching organizations, depriving the party of much of its financing and clout while simultaneously diminishing the Brotherhood board’s control of the party.

As for Mr. Aboul Fotouh, Mr. Morsi suggested that he had brought on his own expulsion by defying the Brotherhood, in part by running for president. When a member breaks away, Mr. Morsi said in the interview, “we don’t blame him; we pity him.”

Mayy El Sheikh and Dina Salah Amer contributed reporting.

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