In January, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was a long shot to become Egypt's next president. When I walked into the Islamist candidate's basement in a far-flung Cairo suburb -- which was doubling as a "backup" headquarters -- it made me think back to the early, insurgent days of Barack Obama's campaign, when Hillary Clinton was still the presumptive Democratic nominee. The basement, with its large spare rooms, was packed with young volunteers. It had a chaotic, bustling feel. 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.
It's an understatement to say that the Aboul Fotouh campaign is a big-tent movement. A former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood and, for decades, one of Egypt's most prominent Islamist figures, he has become the standard-bearer of many of the young liberals who led Egypt's revolution -- including Google executive Wael Ghonim. He is also, however, the preferred candidate of the country's hard-line Salafi groups, including the al-Nour Party and its parent organization al-Dawa al-Salafiya, one of Egypt's largest religious movements. This is all the more impressive considering that, unlike the United States or most European countries, the primary political cleavage in Egypt has little to do with economics and much more to do with religion.
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? As he explained to a Salafi television channel in February, "Today those who call themselves liberals or leftists, this is just a political name, but most of them understand and respect Islamic values. They support the sharia and are no longer against it." In a creative attempt at redefinition, Aboul Fotouh noted that all Muslims are, by definition, Salafi, in the sense that they are loyal to the Salaf, the earliest, most pious generations of Muslims.
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." In the 1970s, he rose to prominence as a leader and founder of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, the religious movement that wrested control over universities from the once dominant leftists. In his memoirs, Aboul Fotouh recalls the early Salafi influence on his ideas: He and his fellow students aggressively promoted sex segregation on campus. At one point, they tried to "prove" to the Muslim Brotherhood's leader at the time, Umar al-Tilmisani, that music was haram, or forbidden by Islam.
Over the course of the decade, Aboul Fotouh developed close relationships with those who would later become the leading lights of Salafi thought. After the 2011 revolution, Aboul Fotouh, then in the process of splitting with the Brotherhood, was one of the few politicians to take Salafists seriously. It helped that he knew them. While the Muslim Brotherhood tended to treat Salafists as immature, younger brothers in the Islamic family, Aboul Fotouh exaggerated their power -- he once claimed that Salafists outnumbered Muslim Brothers 20-to-1 -- and pledged to seek their vote. Respect, it turns out, can go much further than ideological proximity.