Abdul Moniem Abul Fotouh was jailed by Hosni Mubarak but has emerged as a front-runner for his old job as president of Egypt, staking claim to the political center in this nascent democracy with a moderate Islamist platform that has found broad appeal.
A senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood until he parted ways with the group last year, he is part of the generation of Islamist activists that spawned al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Both doctors, they spent time in adjoining jail cells in 1981. For the most part, that’s where the similarities end.
Abul Fotouh presents himself as a champion of moderate Islam, yet he has been able to win the backing of hardliners thanks partly to a political brain which many say sets him apart from the Brotherhood. Even some liberals, impressed by his reformist zeal, say they could vote for the bespectacled 60-year old.
With his presidential bid, he is charting new waters for the Islamist mainstream, reaching out to the tens of millions of Egyptians who played no role in politics in Mubarak's days but are expected to flock to the polls for the May 23-24 vote.
“It’s the Egyptian mainstream I am banking on, the ones I have been working to win over since I started my campaign, who make up more than 90 percent of Egyptians ... who understand (Islamic) sharia law correctly,” he said in an April 23 television interview. “Wherever we look out for people’s interests, we serve them, we are implementing God’s law.”
If the sketchy opinion polls that are available are anything to go by, Abul Fotouh is doing well. A poll published on Monday by a state-run research center showed him second to ex-Arab League chief Amr Moussa and polling well ahead of Mohammed Mursi, the candidate fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abul Fotouh was expelled from the group last year over his decision to seek the presidency - a move that defied its wishes.
At that stage, the Brotherhood had decided against running. Abul Fotouh’s departure from the Brotherhood seemed an inevitable step for a reform-minded politician who had been at odds with the conservatives who still run the movement.
“He is not afraid of anyone,” said Mohammed Habib, a former deputy head of the Brotherhood, recalling two occasions in 2009 when Abul Fotouh had clashed with Mahdi Akef, then the leader of the group. “He is brave and decisive,” added Habib, who also left the group last year and plans to vote for Abul Fotouh.
As a student leader in the 1970s, Abul Fotouh is remembered for confronting President Anwar Sadat in a debate, famously telling him he was surrounded by hypocrites.
In 1981, he was arrested by the Sadat government in a crackdown against dissidents. Under Mubarak, his activism landed him in jail twice for a total of more than six years.
Campaigning under the slogan “Strong Egypt,” Abul Fotouh has stressed the need to finish the country’s unfinished revolution by rooting out remnants of the Mubarak era from the state.
He pledges to increase health and education spending, to make Egypt’s army the most powerful in the region and to turn its economy into one of the 20 strongest in the world. His program says he will adhere to Islamic law.
Like other candidates, he has called for a review of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which he says was “imposed” on Egypt.
While the Brotherhood has faced broad criticism for alienating other parties in the year since Mubarak was toppled, Abul Fotouh is credited with reaching out across the political spectrum.
His efforts appear to be paying dividends. While the Brotherhood’s Mursi has tried to cast himself as the only Islamist in the race, Abul Fotouh managed to convince leading hardline Salafi groups they should endorse him instead.
The Nour Party, a Salafi group that won a fifth of the seats in parliament, has endorsed him. So too has al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, a Salafi group that took up arms against the state but disavowed violence in 1997.
The Wasat Party, a centrist party run by ex-Brotherhood members who left in the 1990s, has also endorsed Abul Fotouh.
A member of the Brotherhood’s executive board from 1987 to 2009, Abul Fotouh still commands respect in the group. His candidacy is also endorsed by Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, a cleric held in high regard by Brotherhood followers.
“In terms of ideology, there is little difference to me between Mursi and Abdul Moniem. As for the organization, of course there is a difference, but the idea is the same,” Helmi al-Gazzar, a Brotherhood member of parliament, told Reuters.
Habib, the former Brotherhood leader, said much of Abul Fotouh’s Islamist vision tallied with the Brotherhood’s, though he was more liberal than some of its members on issues such as the right of Christians and women to seek the presidency.
In a recently published book, Abul Fotouh reflects on how he had once been hostile towards Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, but moderated his views after meeting Sufi Muslims at university.
Some of his critics say Abul Fotouh is trying to be all things to all people. But he says there has been no change in his views since he quit the Brotherhood.
In his April 23 interview, Abul Fotouh said: “I have not changed my principles or ideas regardless of my administrative link: whether I was Brotherhood or now I am outside the administration of the Brotherhood.”
He added: “I don’t think there is a fair liberal, or a fair Salafi, or a fair leftist, who says Dr. Abdul Moniem says one thing and hides another.”