Liberal gets Salafi backing in Egypt's presidential poll


EGYPT’S MOST conservative Islamists endorsed a liberal Islamist for president late on Saturday, upending the political landscape and confounding expectations about the internal dynamics of the Islamist movement.

The main missionary and political groups of the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, threw their support behind Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a dissident former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood known for his tolerant and inclusive view of Islamic law.

The endorsement goes a long way toward making Aboul Fotouh the front-runner in a campaign that could shape the ultimate outcome of the revolt that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

Aboul Fotouh’s liberal understanding of Islamic law on matters of individual freedom and economic equality had already made him the preferred candidate of many Egyptian liberals.

His endorsement by the Salafis makes him the candidate of Egypt’s most determined conservatives, too. Known for their strict focus on Islamic law, the Salafis often talk of reviving medieval Islamic corporal punishments, restricting women’s dress and the sale of alcohol, and cracking down on heretical culture.

The decision was announced by officials of the preaching group, the Salafi Call, and on the website of its allied party, al Nour. Neither group gave a definitive reason.

Salafi leaders described their decision in part as a reaction against the presidential candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful and established Islamist group that dominates parliament.

Although more moderate than the Salafis, the brotherhood also favours an explicitly Islamic democracy in Egypt, and on social and cultural issues it is closer to the Salafis than Aboul Fotouh is.

In television interviews on Saturday night, some Salafis said they believed the brotherhood’s current candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was weaker than either Aboul Fotouh or the brotherhood’s original nominee, Khayrat el-Shater.

Salafi group spokesman Abdel Moneim al-Shahat acknowledged a big difference with Aboul Fotouh over his understanding of verse of the Koran, “there is no compulsion in religion,” which he interprets to mean that the state should not compel people to follow religious rules.

Leading Salafis have hinted they did not expect quick fulfilment of their goals for a state governed by Islamic law. Instead, they wanted a president who could deal with Egypt’s pressing needs while allowing them freedom to preach and advocate.

The Salafi endorsement also appeared to provide an unexpected validation for Aboul Fotouh’s argument that mixing preaching and politics would be “disastrous” for both Islam and Egypt, as he put it in an interview last week with el Rahma, a Salafi satellite channel.

Aboul Fotouh, a physician who led the brotherhood-dominated medical association, was a founder of a 1970s student movement that revitalised Islamist politics here.

He was expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood last year for defying the decision of its leaders to bar members from running for president or engaging in politics outside its own political party.

Although the Salafis are more conservative, they disapprove of the Muslim Brotherhood’s emphasis on internal obedience and orthodoxy. In recent interviews with Salafi networks, Aboul Fotouh says his candidacy and his expulsion from the brotherhood were part of a larger dispute over whether in a democratic Egypt the brotherhood should control its own political party or, instead, go back to its roots in preaching and charity.

In some interviews, he has alluded to threats to the credibility of religious leaders in political life, ranging from the appearance of compromises to more vivid embarrassments like the recent case of a Salafi politician who was caught fabricating a beating by unknown assailants to cover up a nose job.

If his conclusions often seem strikingly liberal, Aboul Fotouh also speaks fluently in the language of Salafis. He has talked at greater length and in greater detail about what Islamic law demands than the other Islamist candidates, including those of the Muslim Brotherhood, who fear alarming moderates. He often argues that the first priorities in advancing Islamic law should be individual freedom and social justice.

Addressing a rally of thousands in this Salafi stronghold in the Nile Delta this week, he argued that Egyptian Muslims were not waiting for a president to teach them to follow their faith. They want a president to develop their agriculture and industry, as he said Islamic law also required. “Whoever sleeps full while his neighbour is hungry is not a believer,” he said, quoting the Prophet Muhammad.

Those appeals may have touched on a difference of social class between the brotherhood and the Salafis. The brotherhood’s leaders often hold advanced degrees in law, medicine or science.

Its platform emphasises business-friendly free-market economics and brotherhood leaders sometimes sound condescending toward to the less sophisticated or less politically experienced Salafis.

Salafi politicians are often local preachers close to their village constituents. Rather than selling puritanism, they practise a populism that plays on the resentments of poor Egyptians toward the cosmopolitan elite, potentially including leaders of the brotherhood. The Salafis also lead a broad grassroots network.

They won about a quarter of the seats in recent parliamentary elections and, since their own standard-bearer was disqualified about two weeks ago, they have emerged as a coveted swing vote.

Aboul Fotouh, who spent more than six years in jail for his brotherhood leadership, brought to the competition for the Salafi vote a special authenticity. Many Salafi leaders came out of the Islamist student movement he led in the 1970s.

On el Rahma, he laughed at a request to introduce himself to Salafi viewers. “One [of the leaders] was joking with me and said to me, ‘We will never forget, sir, that you were our emir’, which is the term we used in the ’70s. So it’s impossible to say the Salafi movement doesn’t know Dr Abdel Moneim.” – (New York Times service)