A Man for All Seasons

Egypt's presidential front-runner is a fascinating political chameleon. But does he have enough real support to win the upcoming election?

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.

But the ideological tensions within the Islamist camp remain, even if Aboul Fotouh's message tends to paper them over. According to him, all Islamists agree on the usul (the "fundamentals") but differ on the furu (the "specifics") of religious practice. In his February interview on Salafi television, he estimated, implausibly, that Islamists agree on 99 percent of the issues.

Thus far, his liberal supporters have dismissed such comments or explained them away. Part of it is the lack of alternatives. The other front-runner, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, is seen as felool, a derogatory term used to describe "remnants" of the old regime. Part of it, however, is that they really seem to believe Aboul Fotouh is who they want him to be. Although Aboul Fotouh is adamantly an Islamist, he has also broken with his former organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamists on key issues. Last year, for instance, Aboul Fotouh asserted that a Muslim has the right to convert to Christianity -- a particularly controversial position for a presidential candidate to take, given that most Sunni scholars hold that the punishment for apostasy is death.

Aboul Fotouh has often insisted on the dangers of mixing preaching and party politics, a position that appeals to liberals as well as some Islamists. When I met with him in 2010 at the height of the Mubarak regime's repression -- and just months before the most rigged parliamentary elections in Egyptian history -- he spoke at length about the need to separate the two. The Muslim Brotherhood, he said, can deal with political issues but should leave competition over power to political parties.

"Putting religion and political authority within one hand is very dangerous. That's what happened in Iran," he told me, peppering his measured Arabic with choice English words for added emphasis. "Historically, famous preachers were not part of the power structure. It's these [autocratic] regimes who put the two together -- putting al-Azhar [the preeminent center of Islamic learning] under the control of the state."

Aboul Fotouh consistently valued the Muslim Brotherhood's social and evangelical work over its accumulation of political power. In July 2008, I asked him what would happen if Hosni Mubarak's regime shut the Brotherhood out of parliament. Faced with the prospect of even more repression, he seemed surprisingly calm. "The Muslim Brotherhood is a social movement in the first place. Its presence in parliament is useful and good, but lack of parliamentary representation does not have an existential effect on the Brotherhood. From 1970 to 1984, we weren't in parliament, and they were 14 of the most active years for the Brotherhood's work of preaching and education."

In this respect, Aboul Fotouh is an old-school Islamist, seeing himself as a faithful heir to Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna's legacy. According to its bylaws, the group's original aim was "to raise a generation of Muslims who would understand Islam correctly and act according to its teachings." Until 1934, the bylaws forbade direct political action. Decades later, General Guide Tilmisani, fearing party politics would corrupt the Brotherhood's soul, prevented the organization from contesting parliamentary elections for many years.

There is a tension, however, between Aboul Fotouh's sometimes liberal pronouncements and his essentially majoritarian understanding of democracy. When I sat down with Aboul Fotouh for the first time in the summer of 2006, I wanted to understand his philosophy of government, to the extent that he had one. He repeatedly emphasized that the people, represented by a freely elected parliament, are the source of authority. On the thorny question, however, of what Islamists would do if parliament passed an "un-Islamic" law, he dismissed the concern: "The parliament won't grant rights to gays because that goes against the prevailing culture of society, and if [members of parliament] did that, they'd lose the next election," he explained. "Whether you are a communist, socialist, or whatever, you can't go against the prevailing culture. There is already a built-in respect for sharia."

This notion has a long pedigree in Islamic thought: Prophet Mohammed is believed to have said, "My ummah [community] will not agree on an error." Likewise, Aboul Fotouh was confident that once Egyptian society was free, the best ideas would rise to the top. There was little need, then, to regulate society from the top down. On their own, without government getting too much in the way, Egyptians would do the right thing. And this would inevitably help Islam. "What happens in a free society?" Aboul Fotouh went on. "I hold conferences and spread my ideas through newspapers and television to try to bring public opinion closer to me.… We have confidence in what we believe."

If people are looking for a consistent strain in Aboul Fotouh's thought, it is this: that Islam has already won out and will continue to win out. Islam is a source of unity and national strength rather than one of division. Depending on where exactly an Egyptian voter stands, this is either reassuring and somewhat banal, or mildly frightening, particularly for the country's Christian minority.

Nevertheless, it is an idea with analogues elsewhere in the region, most notably in Turkey and Tunisia, where "moderate" Islamists came to power by tapping into a religious mainstream that had lost faith in the secular project of previous decades. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, used democratization to strengthen the place of Islam in public life. He embraced European Union accession talks while knowing full well that the required liberal reforms would weaken the military's influence and empower Islamic currents in a country where the right to openly express religious values had been severely curtailed. In Tunisia, Rached Ghannouchi and his al-Nahda party have backed off from demands that Islamic law be enshrined in the Tunisian Constitution, perhaps knowing that Islamization of Tunisian society is already well under way, regardless of what the Tunisian Constitution says.

Indeed, the same attacks that follow Aboul Fotouh's counterparts in Turkey and Tunisia will be used against him: that he is a proponent of "stealth Islamization" and that he remains faithful to the project of applying sharia. The critics might be right. If Aboul Fotouh becomes president, there will be a battle -- between his liberal, revolutionary supporters and his Islamist backers -- over the direction his presidency takes. Now that the major Salafi organizations have endorsed him, they are likely to have significant influence in an Aboul Fotouh administration, pushing his presidency to the right on social and moral issues.

But though Salafists are a critical bloc of support for the Aboul Fotouh campaign, they have little presence in the candidate's inner circle and campaign organization, which is composed mostly of ex-Muslim Brotherhood members, liberals, and revolutionary youth. One of Aboul Fotouh's closest aides is Rabab El-Mahdi, a Marxist political science professor, who says her "biggest project" is ending the Islamist-secularist divide and focusing on the bread-and-butter issues that actually matter in people's lives. Another is the 30-year-old Ali El-Bahnasawy, a self-described liberal who is Aboul Fotouh's media advisor. He told me that the Salafists' endorsement was "amazing" and credited them for realizing that "Egypt needs to end the polarization in the country now." For him, this is the essence of Aboul Fotouh's appeal. "We need someone," Bahnasawy said, "who can talk to the Islamists and speak their language and talk to the liberals and gain their trust as well."

The popularity of Aboul Fotouh's campaign is partly a reaction to growing polarization in Egypt, where fears abound of an "Algeria scenario" of annulled elections, dissolved parliaments, and military coups. But just as the high hopes of the Obama campaign were dashed by the political compromises inherent in governing, an Aboul Fotouh administration may find it difficult to transcend the basic realities of Egyptian political life. If he wins, his supporters will soon find that the divisions between Egypt's feuding political currents do not dissipate quickly, if at all.

It is perhaps telling that Aboul Fotouh's rise comes at a time when religious belief has become an easy substitute for real discussion on economic recovery, security-sector reform, or how to fight income inequality. For the vast majority of Egyptians, the debate over sharia has been utterly beside the point. It is an elite debate and, in some ways, a manufactured one. As Aboul Fotouh will be the first to say, all major political forces support Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that the "principles of the Islamic sharia are the primary source of legislation." Even the most "secular" party -- the Free Egyptians -- took to campaigning in rural areas with banners reading "The Quran Is Our Constitution." Meanwhile, it was the Salafists, and not the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, who entered into serious negotiations over forming a parliamentary coalition with liberal parties. As a senior official in the Salafi al-Nour Party once put it to me, "Here in Egypt, even the liberals are conservatives."

Sharia has become the "hope and change" of Egyptian politics -- all say they like it, but no one quite knows what it means. As the most powerful man in Egypt and with a bully pulpit to match, Egypt's first revolutionary president will have a fleeting opportunity to redefine the meaning of Islam in public life.

In the introduction to his electoral program, Aboul Fotouh, the candidate, embraces the application of sharia. But there's a caveat: "The understanding of implementation of Islamic law is not, as some people think, about applying the hudud punishments [such as cutting of the hands of thieves]," the program reads. "In its complete understanding, Islamic law has to do with realizing the essential and urgent needs of humankind." The program then goes on to list combating poverty and fighting corruption as two fundamental components of applying Islamic law. For Aboul Fotouh, sharia is both everything and nothing all at once. For now at least, that seems to be exactly the way he wants it.



The 140-Character Fatwa

Enormously popular, extremist Saudi clerics are promoting hatred, violence, and intolerance on Facebook and Twitter. Can they be stopped?

Despite assurances from the Saudi government that it is cracking down on religious radicalism, the kingdom's top clerics continue calling for attacks on Christians across the Arab world. And in the Internet age, these voices of hate have been handed a larger megaphone than ever before.

You don't have to look hard to find examples of religious intolerance emanating from the very top of the Saudi religious hierarchy. On a visit to Kuwait in March, Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, told the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society -- which has been designated as a "specially designated global terrorist" entity by the United States and the United Nations for arming and financing al Qaeda -- that it is "necessary to destroy all the churches in the Arabian Peninsula." And there's more where that came from. The mufti also believes that proponents of women's rights are "advocates of evil and misguidance."

These sentiments are particularly troubling as Saudi clerics flock to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and mobile apps to amplify their messages. Despite Saudi religious figures' historical opposition to modern technologies, they now see online social media as a crucial means of communicating with the Saudi public and the Muslim world. The top three Saudi clerics on Twitter -- Salman al-Odah, Mohamad al-Arefe, and Aidh al-Qarnee -- all have well over 1 million followers.

To put this in perspective, Arefe's 1.5 million Twitter followers rival the number who follow football phenom Tim Tebow. Tebow's religious messaging may be controversial, but Arefe has him beat. In a July 2010 sermon, Arefe declared, "The desire to shed blood, to smash skulls, and to sever limbs for the sake of Allah and in defense of his religion, is, undoubtedly, an honor for the believer."

Qarnee spews similar invective. Shortly after Israel and Hamas completed the prisoner swap for Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit in October 2011, Qarnee rushed to the defense of a fellow Saudi cleric who offered $100,000 to any Palestinian who could capture another Israeli soldier. Qarnee lauded "all who struggle with their tongue, their money, their blood, or their knowledge [against] the Zionist entity."

This is just a taste of the messaging we sampled in our six-month study, conducted from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2011, to learn what these clerics are saying online and how they spread their messages.

With the help of ConStrat, a Washington-based technology company, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies collected and analyzed more than 40,000 social media entries in both English and Arabic. ConStrat's researchers combed through the online data, which included content Saudi clerics posted personally, as well as content referencing the Saudi clerical establishment. ConStrat then assigned a sentiment to each post and flagged them by topic to help us better digest the large amount of data.

Alarmingly, of the thousands of messages ConStrat scored, 75 percent could be described as xenophobic, bigoted, or openly hateful. Some Saudi clerics like Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, head imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, still describe Jews as "sons of monkeys and pigs." Saleh al-Fawzan of the Council of Senior Ulema (CSU) ruled that fathers may arrange marriages for their daughters "even if they are in the cradle." And the Permanent Committee for Research and Ifta, one of the kingdom's highest religious bodies, suggested in December 2011 that repealing the Saudi ban on female driving could "provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce," predicting that in 10 years, there would be "no more virgins."

Calls for violence accounted for only a small percentage of our total content -- less than 5 percent -- though such messages are still getting out. This appears to be the direct result of the Saudi crackdown on "deviant" ideologies after the 9/11 attacks. Since then, clerics have adapted and found ways to promote intolerance without running afoul of Riyadh. But not every cleric understands the state's red lines, and some have paid the price for crossing them. In September 2008, Saleh al-Luhaidan, another CSU cleric, declared it "morally permissible" to kill the owners of satellite television channels that promoted "moral depravity." To the monarchy, the statement was beyond the pale, and King Abdullah fired Luhaidan from his position as chief judge of the Saudi Supreme Judicial Council.

To put it mildly, Saudi Arabia has never been known for freedom of speech and assembly. But now the kingdom faces an even tougher challenge -- balancing greater freedom of expression with the need to counter extremist and hateful language. As social networks have enabled clerics to disseminate their radical Wahhabi sentiments more widely, the monarchy is now trying to temper the views it once promoted.

The Saudis endured three major confrontations with religious figures in the 20th century alone. In the 1920s, Islamist marauders rebelled against the state, leading to a 10-month battle for control of the Saudi state. In 1979, a violent group of Salafi separatists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. And in the early 1990s, the Sahwa (Awakening) clerics denounced the U.S. military presence in the Gulf and demanded a more Islamic government. Indeed, this was a message that Osama bin Laden leveraged to build support for his nascent al Qaeda network.

In all those situations, Riyadh successfully quelled dissent by co-opting its challengers or crushing them through harsher measures. In co-opting the radicals, the regime embraced their dangerous worldview, but carefully channeled it elsewhere, "exporting" radicalism abroad. This approach worked, but only to a point. Indeed, extremists re-emerged within the kingdom in each instance to challenge the regime again.

Saudi Arabia, like the rest of the Arab world, confronts a new, rapidly changing political environment. For decades, the Saudi state has attempted to cater to radical elements of the religious establishment while also placating Washington's demands for moderation and reform. This balancing act is now more difficult than ever, however, due to the clerics' use of social media and growing demands for change.

For Washington, the challenge is to ensure that the Saudis keep social media free from draconian censorship while simultaneously ensuring that the radicals who employ it cannot threaten international security. But with radical clerics gaining Twitter and Facebook followers at eye-popping rates, it won't be easy.