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Egypt’s Aboul-Fotouh Says Islamist Candidacy Can Unify

The speakers who took to the stage last month to praise Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh at the start of his Egyptian presidential campaign were a diverse bunch, including a Christian politician, a female movie star and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, he won backing from an ultraconservative Salafi group.

In a country increasingly polarized after the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, the 60-year-old Aboul-Fotouh, a physician by training, presents his unlikely coalition as proof he can straddle the divide between Islamists and people concerned that religious politics will erode their rights. Most polls place him in the top three before the voting starts on May 23, giving him a strong chance of qualifying for the run-off starting June 16 between the two leading candidates.

Aboul-Fotouh and Amre Moussa are “the two clear frontrunners,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. Aboul-Fotouh “has done something that very few Egyptian politicians have been able to do, and that is to transcend the partisan divide. He’s been able to appeal to liberals and Islamists simultaneously.”

Aboul-Fotouh served prison terms in the Mubarak era when Moussa served as foreign minister. His campaign highlights that dissident background and his support for last year’s revolution to back promises of change, including a shift in taxes to favor the poor. Support from secular activists has helped Aboul-Fotouh allay concerns about Islamist dominance, in an election that has boiled down into a contest between candidates with a religious background and those with ties to the old regime.

Power Handover

The vote is due to mark the conclusion of Egypt’s often tumultuous transition to democracy and civilian rule after the ouster of Mubarak in February last year. Instability has delayed economic recovery as tourists and investors stay away. Borrowing costs are near record highs, the central bank has spent almost 60 percent of Egypt’s foreign currency reserves, and the government is seeking a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. One-year pound futures fell to a record low yesterday, signaling investors expect a 20 percent devaluation.

The generals who took over after the uprising say they will stand down after the election, whose result is due on June 21. Tensions have escalated between Islamists, who won parliamentary elections ending in January, and the army council, and there have been frequent outbreaks of violence at protests in Cairo, leaving dozens dead.

Shariah Protection

A member of the Muslim Brotherhood until last year, when he announced his intention to seek the presidency in defiance of the Brotherhood’s leadership, Aboul-Fotouh is ahead of the group’s official candidate, Mohamed Morsi, in local polls. Most surveys have showed him trailing only Moussa, though a survey in state-run Al-Ahram newspaper this week had Ahmed Shafik, a former air-force commander and premier under Mubarak, in second place.

As frontrunners, Aboul-Fotouh and Moussa were the only candidates to take part in Egypt’s first televised presidential debate on May 10, trading barbs over more than four hours about past ties to Mubarak and the Brotherhood, and offering prescriptions for Islam’s role in the state.

“There is no contradiction between religion and citizenship, religion and constitution, or religion and the state,” Aboul-Fotouh said. The Islamic Shariah law protects the rights of everyone, whatever their religious beliefs or backgrounds, he said.

‘Biased’ to Poor

While Aboul-Fotouh touted the diversity of his support, Moussa said that showed his insincerity. “With the Salafis, he’s a Salafi, with the liberals a liberal, and he’s a moderate with the moderates,” Moussa said.

Aboul-Fotouh’s manifesto advocates an economic policy “clearly biased to the poorer classes,” and calls for a more progressive tax system including charges on capital gains and luxury items. While other candidates have made similar pledges, Aboul-Fotouh’s broad support would enable him to go further in changing economic policy, said Samer Atallah, who advises him.

“The philosophy is that Egyptian individuals should be the target of development, not just a tool for economic growth,” said Atallah, an assistant professor of economics at the American University in Cairo. He also criticizes Moussa’s plans to seek more foreign loans, saying: “We think that borrowing is not a solution.”

Moussa will be favored by those “who want change but not too much of it” after the upheaval of the past two years, Hamid said. “He’s the fear candidate.” Moussa says his experience as a statesman and network of contacts will give him an edge.

Army Objections

Islamist politicians won about three-quarters of seats in parliament’s lower house, with almost half going to the Brotherhood’s party and a quarter to Salafi bloc, followers of a stricter version of Islam. The latter’s backing for Aboul-Fotouh in the presidential contest has unnerved some of his secularist supporters.

Journalist and commentator Hamdi Kandil hailed Aboul-Fotouh as a “genuine candidate of the revolution” at his campaign launch in Cairo’s Al-Azhar park. By May 14, he was writing in Al Masry Al Youm newspaper that his “religious frame of reference sparks fears.”

Divisions between the different strands of political Islam mean that Aboul-Fotouh isn’t guaranteed the support of other groups if he reaches the run-off. “There’s a real chance that if it’s Moussa versus Aboul-Fotouh in the second round, the Brotherhood won’t support Aboul-Fotouh,” though it would be unlikely to openly endorse Moussa either, Hamid said.

‘Back in Tahrir’

Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said in a phone interview that some group members have frequently clashed with Aboul-Fotouh over “ideas that we think run contrary to the constants of Islam.”

Nor will Aboul-Fotouh be favored by the army, said Ashraf el-Sherif, a political scientist at the American University of Cairo. “The military will not accept a president who is affiliated with the revolution, and an Islamist,” he said.

The generals say they regard all candidates equally and promise a clean and fair vote.

Mariam Mahmoud, a 28-year-old supporter at the Aboul-Fotouh rally, says it made her feel “as if I was back in Tahrir Square last year,” referring to the anti-Mubarak protests. “All of Egypt’s groups were represented, and we all share a dream,” she said. “What we need now is someone who can bring Egyptians together again.”

Defying Sadat

The rally features a presentation highlighting the candidate’s history of challenging authority -- and the repeated jail terms it landed him with. In 2007, he defied the Brotherhood’s official line by backing the right of women and Egypt’s minority Coptic Christians to compete for the presidency.

As well as patriotic songs, supporters heard a recording of the late Anwar Sadat meeting university students in the 1970s. One of them was outspoken. “There are no scholars left in Egypt, except those who are sycophantic to the authorities, and to you,” the young Aboul-Fotouh told the president, earning a furious rebuke from the president.

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