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Candidate Aboul Fotouh highlights diversity of Egypt’s Islamists

After decades as the main representative of political Islam in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is now facing challenges for that role.

As Egypt prepares to elect its first president after Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule, it’s no surprise that one of the front-runners is an Islamist.

What is surprising is that he isn’t the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political party took nearly 50 percent of the seats in parliamentary elections and is the best-organized political force in post-uprising Egypt.

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was a long-time reformist member of the group, but the Brotherhood expelled him last year when he defied group leaders in order to run for the presidency. Once considered by some to be a long shot, he is now seen as a front-runner with a chance of winning a spot in the runoff when Egyptians go to the polls next week.

After decades as the main representative of political Islam in Egypt, the Brotherhood is now facing challenges for that role, even as the organization holds more formal power than at any other point in its 84-year history. Dr. Aboul Fotouh’s candidacy is perhaps the greatest challenge yet to the Brotherhood’s hegemony, and an indication of how Egypt’s revolution revealed the rifts within the Brotherhood and opened the field to Islamists outside the organization.

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And while the dominance of Islamists in post-Mubarak Egypt has concerned some in the West, Aboul Fotouh’s candidacy highlights how this force is not monolithic. Diversity and democratic competition is growing within the Islamist spectrum.

“The Brotherhood was never the only force in political Islam in Egypt, but they were the dominant force. Now this dominance is being challenged,” says Omar Ashour, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

On one side, says Dr. Ashour, are the more conservative Islamists, including the Salafi Nour party and politicized Salafi sheikhs, the formerly jihadist Islamic Group, and young independent Salafi activists. On the other side is Aboul Fotouh and other reform-minded Brotherhood members who left the movement to pursue their own strain of political Islam after Egypt’s uprising.

One of those is Mohamed Afan, a former Brotherhood member who left after the uprising last year and helped start the Egyptian Current party, a small moderate Islamist party. He now supports Aboul Fotouh. Egypt’s uprising, which displaced the regime that oppressed Islamists and opened up space for them to participate in politics and public life, exposed rifts in the Brotherhood that were there all along, he says.

“Before the revolution I had many comments and many demands for improvements in the Muslim Brotherhood, and they were always excused because of the Mubarak regime’s suppression, and these security issues.… After the revolution it was clear to me that all these excuses before the revolution were just excuses,” he says.

While he knew he had differences with others in the organization, he was surprised to discover just how wide the gaps were.

“The surprise here was not just that we are different, but that we are opposite,” he says. He was unhappy with the way the Brotherhood formally waded into politics, starting its own political party and forbidding members from joining other parties. He also disagreed with the group’s use of religion in politics, and its view on the application of sharia, or Islamic law.

Like Afan, many young members of the Brotherhood left or were expelled from the organization last year over demands for greater internal democracy, for supporting Aboul Fotouh, or for joining or forming political parties.

Aboul Fotouh, a moderate Islamist, was expelled when he announced his intention to run for president. At that time, the Brotherhood had pledged not to run a candidate in the presidential race.

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Aboul Fotouh, a physician with a following among young Brotherhood members, was a proponent of internal reform in the organization. But he was marginalized by more conservative leaders, and in 2009 lost his post on the organization’s highest executive body.

Some Brotherhood leaders have publicly backed his bid for the presidency, even though the Brotherhood is now fielding its own candidate, Mohamed Morsi, also considered a top contender for the presidency.

Aboul Fotouh has also received support from a less-expected source: ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis, who differ with Aboul Fotouh’s more moderate stance. One of the largest Salafi organizations, the Dawa Salafiya, and its political arm the Nour Party, endorsed Aboul Fotouh in what is widely seen as a bid to counter the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since the revolution, the Salafis have been a strong challenger to the Brotherhood. Before Mubarak was overthrown, they eschewed politics. But they reversed that position after the uprising, forming political parties to contest parliamentary elections, and stunning many by winning nearly a quarter of the seats. The Brotherhood underestimated the Salafi groups, says Ashour, and was unprepared for the challenge they would pose.

Now, in response to the success of Aboul Fotouh’s campaign and his Salafi backing, the Brotherhood has turned to religious rhetoric in an apparent attempt to energize the grassroots and convince Salafis to vote for its candidate, Dr. Morsi.

At a recent rally for Morsi near Cairo University, there was little talk about security, jobs, Egypt’s foundering economy, subpar education system, or other crowd-pleasing issues candidates often focused on during parliamentary elections. Instead, speaker after speaker cast Morsi as God’s candidate, the only Islamist candidate, and the one who would implement sharia.

“We are not going to accept anything else but applying God’s law,” said popular preacher Safwat Hegazy, to roars from the large crowd. A Salafi cleric, Mohamed Abdel Maqsood, hinted that Aboul Fotouh was not Islamic enough, and the moderator led the crowd in chants of “the people want the application of sharia!”

When Morsi stood to speak, he talked about the history of the Brotherhood, and repeatedly turned to religious rhetoric. “The Quran is our constitution, and it always will be,” he said, later saying “what we care about is applying sharia.”

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If Aboul Fotouh wins, Afan sees gradual but important changes taking place in the Brotherhood. “Many concepts, many ideas will fall down if he wins,” says Afan. But even if he doesn’t, he sees the diversity of Islamist voices as a healthy development. “It’s important for the maturation of political Islam in Egypt, which of course will influence political Islam in the Arab world,” he says.