Abul Fotouh: A Revolution’s Choice of Last Resort?

Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a reformist member of the Muslim Brotherhood, speaks during an interview with AFP at his office at the doctors' syndicate in Cairo on 25 May 2011. (Photo: AFP - Khaled Desouki)

By: Lina Attalah

Published Thursday, March 15, 2012

Revolutionary and pro-democracy forces have been able to find multiple battles in Egypt’s presidential contest and it is in the midst of these battles that they differ.

It’s a battle against the police state that dates back to 1952. It’s also a battle for a new democracy that stands firm in the face of the counter-revolution. And it’s a battle for the survival of non-Islamists amidst the steady and consistent Islamist ascent.

Supporting presidential hopeful Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh became a platform for all of these battles. Abul Fotouh is a defector from Egypt’s emerging powerhouse, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). He has come to appeal to many in the revolutionaries’ camp, as well as members of the incumbent Islamist group who identify with his dissent over the intransigence of the MB’s executive body, the Guidance Bureau. He attracted a more extended base of support after the critical pullout from the presidential race of reform leader Mohamed El-Baradei. The base of support for the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was mostly among the revolutionaries.

But should the revolutionaries believe in Abul Fotouh's post-Islamist offering? While being born to fundemantalist Islam, this post-Islamist offering has developed to uphold rights and to strive for democracy like Iran's most recent “Green Movement” or Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

Ahmad Abdel Gawad, who works in Abul Fotouh’s campaign, says yes. Abdel Gawad is also a defector of the Muslim Brotherhood, or more precisely, was ousted by a decision from its Guidance Bureau in response to his joining of The Egyptian Current, a new party of young, mostly former MB members. The Egyptian Current has camped with the liberals and the leftists in what is considered the most revolutionary parliamentary elections’ bloc dubbed “The Revolution Continues.”

“Dr. Abul Fotouh refuses to be labeled as an Islamist candidate. This is not to defect from his origins,” Abdel Gawad confidently says. “But his argument is that we don’t need to question the Islamic identity of Egyptians, by locking ourselves up in this territory. The current process is one of nation building, which needs to transcend void ideological battles.”

To prove his point, Abdel Gawad cites Abul Fotouh’s yet to be released political platform. According to Abdel Gawad, the program doesn’t delve into futile identity politics issues. Instead, it has socialist applications in order to respond to pressing issues of social justice, while it also has a liberal leaning by promoting openness to the market “so long as it is convenient for the Egyptian reality.”

Indeed, to reflect its eclectic post-Islamist attire, Abul Fotouh’s campaign prides itself for including both the hardcore Marxist and the free market liberal as political advisor and media advisor respectively.

Tamer Wagih, a member of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party, decided to back Abul Fotouh, because he sees that “the essence of the battle is to fight the military regime and the broader counter-revolutionary bloc.”

“So the strategy would be to find the most apt candidate who can stand against these forces and to back him,” he says.

Over the last year, Abul Fotouh spared little effort in antagonizing the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He wouldn’t miss a chance to publicly condemn the junta’s failure in running the country in transition.

“This is not a fight for who is the most radical candidate in terms of adopting our revolutionary demands,” Wagih reckons. “We are not choosing Abul Fotouh because we love him, but because he represents the most significant symbol in the current landscape fighting the counter-revolution.”

But opting for Abul Fotouh is not that resolved of an issue for all revolutionaries, especially the secularists among them. One issue remains hard to swallow: Abul Fotouh is essentially an Islamist. If all the revolutionary forces, particularly the Left, back him, then this emerging movement could possibly be diluted in his politics.

For Akram Ismail, a leftist columnist and activist, fighting against the police state can only happen through a dynamic and diverse political arena that replaces the role played by the security apparatus as the main broker between citizens and the state. Backing Abul Fotouh becomes a sheer act of submission.

“The fight for the Left’s survival is crucial. Like all Islamists, Abul Fotouh denies our presence,” says Ismail, adding, “Abul Fotouh eyes the wider support of the Brotherhood and Islamist bases. For him, we’re just a bunch of elites.”

Ismail points out how Islamist scholar Youssef al-Qaradawy, a staunch supporter of Abul Fotouh, told the media that non-Islamist groups are alien to society and have no future. He also purports that at best, Abul Fotouh will represent an Islamist experience reconciled with Western values of neo-liberalism.

Ismail was actively campaigning for the Revolution Continues parliamentary candidates, who reaped some 800 thousand votes across the nation. His experience working with the Egyptian Current parliamentary bloc was that the common grounds on which both sides met during parliamentary elections did not negate the fact that post-Islamists “perceive us [leftists] as eccentric and think that we have to stay in the mainstream if we want to win our battles.”

But it’s precisely because of the experience of the Revolution Continues that Ismail wants to fight on, away from Abul Fotouh’s territory.

“We have to build on the constituency we reaped in the parliamentary elections by offering an alternative proposition. We have to fight for our presence in the political map by expanding our networks. We are weak, that’s true. But we’re not zero,” says Ismail, passionately. The candidacy of Khaled Ali, a young and relatively unknown labor and human rights lawyer, is one such alternative, received with mixed feelings from the revolutionary bloc, mainly due to his little chances.

“Are we proposing a leftist candidate to show how weak we are?” Wagih asks rhetorically.

Wagih recognizes that Abul Fotouh is not an ideal choice but one that came by elimination. “We know that he is fluctuating and less revolutionary than us. And that’s why we give him only conditional support. If he is bought off or if he gets neutralized or if a more powerful symbol emerges, we will stop supporting him.”

Even if it seems unlikely at the moment, some fear that the MB will end up at least tacitly or informally backing Abul Fotouh, in the absence of any other plausible candidate worthy of their support. This MB connection is uncomfortable for many who see the group abandoning the revolution in its quest for power.

“Who cares? I am not choosing him to fight with the Brothers. And there is no crime in reconciling with the Brothers especially if he wins. They represent the parliamentary majority and no one is better than Abul Fotouh to strike an agreement with them,” says Abdel Gawad.

Like many of his generation, Abul Fotouh abandoned the revolutionary promises of 1952’s Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime after the 1967 military defeat against Israel. Salvation for him lay in the parish of the Brotherhood, with whom his later break-up has been both intense and complicated.

Many believe that it is the unsettled deal between SCAF and the Brotherhood that is helping to create a margin for the revolution to survive. Abul Fotouh’s clear animosity with SCAF and current break-up with the Brotherhood is placing him in this margin which could possibly mean the triumph of moderate political Islam in the longer run. Whether his path would remain entangled with that of the revolution, remains questionable.

Lina Attalah is the managing editor of Egypt Independent.

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