Archives: Why a former Muslim Brotherhood leader will surprise in the Egyptian presidential election

21 July 2011

By: Grant Rumley

In the 1970’s a young Egyptian doctor publicly berated President Anwar Sadat at a speech in Cairo, an episode that earned him notoriety with the police forces, a cozy jail cell, and plenty of time to think about his actions. Yet it also earned him sympathy and support from other like-minded Egyptians, most notably, the Muslim Brotherhood.

A little over 30 years later Dr Moneim Abou El-Fetouh would emerge as one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, representing the organization to foreign press agencies and speaking out at local events. Yet his days of political confrontation were far from over, and this past March he publicly disagreed with another political entity—the Brotherhood itself.

The Muslim Brotherhood is weakening. What once reigned in the Egyptian underground as a powerful organizing force has been fractured and stratified—given unyielding political mobility in a post-revolution Egypt; the options confounded the leadership and disenchanted the youth. Shortly after the revolution the Brotherhood announced the creation of the Freedom and Justice party. The party was to serve as the vanguard of all of the Brotherhood’s political aspirations and contentions.

Representing the pillars of contemporary Islamism, the Brotherhood defended the party as a proxy, professing they would put forward no candidate for president in the upcoming elections.

Yet the Freedom and Justice party was not suitable to all supporters and members of the Brotherhood. Shortly after its creation another splinter party was formed, the Egyptian Current party. Founded by a 33 year old tech worker, Islam Lotfy, and a few others of the Brotherhood youth, the Egyptian Current party argued for a neo-Islamism approach: separation of religion and politics, individual freedoms, and an ‘embrace’ of Islamic morals and culture. The disparity between the youth of the Brotherhood and the established elite was widening in a post-Tahrir Egypt, as Lotfy argued in a National Journal article: “the concept of the revolution is against the Brotherhood.” A gap had emerged, a vacuum in which the complications of reconciling a conservative Islamic approach with the reality of liberal modernity resided.

Enter, Abou El-Fetouh.

The longtime Brotherhood leader disagreed with the organization’s elite and the newly formed Freedom and Justice party. In March, El-Fetouh announced he would seek the presidency, running on a platform of some form of progressivism and Islamism. El-Fetouh condoned the rights of women to reject the veil, the conversion between Muslims and Christians, and even mentioned the possibility of a woman or (gasp) a non-Muslim ascending to the presidency one day.

It’s hard to imagine what the Brotherhood found so wrong.

Quickly disinherited from the Brotherhood ranks, El-Fetouh maintained his candidacy for president, and, coincidentally, his popularity with the Brotherhood youth in the Egyptian Current party. El-Fetouh represents the progression if Islamist thought in contemporary Egypt; a struggle between modernity and tradition, Islam in the face of the age of technology. For a country that has—according to a 2010 Pew poll—95% of its population supporting Islam’s influence in politics, only 48% of that public believes it plays a large or significant role. The discrepancy is blatant: how does a country reconcile a revolution based in technology and modernity with a long-standing history of traditional Islamist thought?

The campaign for El-Fetouh will not be a cakewalk. A number of things need to happen for him to achieve favorable results. The first thing he needs is time. Time was the issue most passionately argued in the June referendum, a hotly contested vote over the date of the upcoming elections. While September was selected, many rumors from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have the elections as being postponed to November. Earlier elections favor organized parties, namely the Brotherhood, and El-Fetouh and other candidates need time to run their campaigns. El-Fetouh will also be relying on the youth support that has so carried him into the spotlight. The youth vote is split in Egypt, and El-Fetouh will need to compete for the moderate youth against the likes of Amr Moussa and Mohammed El-Baradei. El-Fetouh will also need favorability in the newly-formed district outlines. He will have a hard time competing in heavily populated Christian areas and liberal strongholds, both of which will be reticent to support a former Brother; yet he can expect to do well in the rural and conservative areas of the country.

El-Fetouh is anything but a sure bet—there’s no such thing as a sure bet in the infancy that is Egyptian politics. Players rise and fall quickly, subject to a public opinion that only recently has been able to transmit its message directly. Just ask Mohammed Tantawi, Mubarak’s Field Marshal and current head of the SCAF transition committee. At the height of the revolution Tantawi enjoyed more popularity than any other candidate. Now, he is vilified by thousands of protesters in Tahrir nearly every Friday as a former Mubarak-man trying to hold on to as much power as possible. El-Fetouh will have to tread carefully in this uncharted territory, and when considering his reconciliation of Islamism and progressivism, he will do well to bear in mind his own words from a February Washington Post op-ed: “The people of Egypt will decide their representatives, their form of democratic government and the role of Islam in their lives.”