A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Conundrum of Abu'l Futuh: Why His Broad Appeal?

One of the less-predictable aspects of Egypt's Presidential election race has been the emergence of Abd al-Moneim Abu'l-Futuh as one of the front-runners, if not the front-runner. He will be holding a big rally this coming Friday, apparently intended as a show of strength. The debate last week clearly reflects a perception that the contest is becoming a two-way race between Abu'l-Futuh and Amtr Moussa. Amr Moussa is easy enough to characterize: former Foreign Minister and Arab League Secretary-General, familiar figure in the establishment with just enough distance from the Mubarak administration to have some credibility, Most of the other candidates can be easily characterized as well: Muhammad Morsi as the Muslim Brotherhood's anointed candidate, the "spare tire" dropped in to replace Khairat al-Shater; Ahmad Shafiq the military stalwart of the Mubarak era; Hamdeen Sabahi the Nasserist; Khalid Ali the liberal, and so on.

Abu'l-Futuh should be easy enough to categorize as well. A physician, he first showed his political colors when, as President of the Student Union at Cairo University, he publicly challenged President Anwar Sadat. Starting out with links to Al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, he entered the Muslim Brotherhood, was jailed in 1981 during Sadat's crackdown on opposition, then rose through the Brotherhood ranks to serve on the Brotherhood's guidance council. Eased out of the Brotherhood senior leadership in 2009, he was officially expelled last year when he announced his Presidential campaign. It's not surprising that he has the endorsement of many Islamists, ranging from the hardline Salafi Al-Nour Party and Al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, as well as the moderate Islamist Al-Wasat Party,and by many accounts is supported by many members of the Muslim Brotherhood who find Morsi uninspiring. So it's a fairly classic Islamist resume, if more prominent than most.

So why on earth has he been endorsed by Wael Ghonim, the social-media savvy Microsoft Google executive who helped fuel the Facebook side of the Revolution, and a fair number of other (but by no means all) Egyptian liberals and secularists? Why is he strongly popular on university campuses?

I'm hardly the first to ask the question. Shadi Hamid's piece for Foreign Policy last week was entitled "A Man for All Seasons," and as he puts it:
Aboul Fotouh's supporters may have hailed from radically different backgrounds, but they believed, above all, in the candidate. They wanted to transcend the old battle lines of "Islamist" or "liberal" and reimagine Egyptian politics in the process.
What those grand ambitions mean in practice is, at times, unclear. As Aboul Fotouh has risen to front-runner status in the first ever competitive presidential election in Egypt's history, he has become the Rorschach test of Egyptian politics. Liberals think he's more liberal than he actually is. Conservatives hope he's more conservative.
Certainly the man has had success in portraying himself as a man who transcends the secular-religious divide. Shadi Hamid again:
Aboul Fotouh's success stems in part from his ability to neutralize this religious divide. One of his messages -- and one that has appeal for liberals and hard-line Islamists alike -- is this: We are all, in effect, Islamists, so why fight over it?  . . . Aboul Fotouh is able to make this argument, and make it sound convincing, in part because of who he is. He is the rare figure who has been, at various points in his career, a Salafi, a Muslim Brother, and, today, a Turkish-style "liberal Islamist."
Abu'l-Futuh's performance in the debate showed him at his best as a dignified (and unusually tall and thus commanding), well-spoken figure. Not a rabble-rouser, or a wild-eyed radical. He looks like a distinguished medical man, which he is. But is that enough to make him President?

Egypt has never had a genuinely competitive Presidential race until now (if a race in which ten candidates, including three front-runners, were disqualified is "genuinely competitive"); so it is hard to say. And certainly not all secularists and liberals are joining the Abu'l-Futuh bandwagon; many suspect he is really still a Muslim Brother at heart, and some cynics wonder if his "expulsion" and the Brotherhood's threat to expel anyone supporting him were not ploys to increase his credibility with non-Islamists.

Some of his appeal to liberals may be understood from this post about a campaign rally by the blogger Baheyya,  You might also check out the website Liberal Koshari, which despite a general irreverence endorsed Abu'l-Futuh with reservations:
Aboul Fotouh is not our ideal candidate and we disagree with a number of his views (as we indicated above) and with those who claim he is a “liberal” (as we mentioned above, he is "Islamist-lite" a la Tunisia's Ennahda). We realize that some of our readers will be disappointed with this endorsement but we think, compared to the other names in the running, Aboul Fotouh is the right man to lead Egypt for the coming five years.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, and perhaps part of the Abu'l-Futuh phenomenon is driven by this "best of a bad lot" approach. He's not as bad as the others, so he'll have to do? That doesn't seem to explain his more enthusiastic supporters, many of whom self-identify as liberals.

If you're reading this expecting me to offer some big answer: he's really still a hardcore Islamist, or he's a liberal at heart, or he's really a true middle-of-the-roader, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. I think part of the attraction may be that he doesn't fit so neatly into the stereotypes of the other candidates. But then, when someone seems to be all things to all people, it's not only cynics who should ask what the man really is for. He wants an Islamic-oriented secular state? He wants a shari‘a based state but doesn't object to Muslims converting to Christianity? How can these various positions be reconciled; how can one person hold seemingly conflicting positions in their mind at the same time? Or is he really the wave of the future? The ultimate synthesis between secular modernity and Islamism? (UPDATE: Hold the Presses: the Los Angeles Times has it figured out: he's a "Dynamic Pragmatist.")

Count me as trying to keep an open mind, but as not buying into the enthusiasm. Of course, I don't have a vote, and there's a reasonable chance we're going to be having lots of time to analyze who this man is and where he would lead Egypt. On the other hand, some polls suggest he's faltering in the race, though the poll are conflicting and he's still got his big rally coming up Friday.

I won't be profiling all of the candidates, but I probably will post on the front-runners before the first round vote.


Unknown said...

Good read.
Quick comment. Ghonim is a Google executive not Microsoft's.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Oops. Wrong Megacorp aiming at global dominance. Corrected.