Via NY Times, by David K. Kirkpatrick
CAIRO — Twelve days before a presidential election, a televised debate that carried on into the early morning hours Friday has put the role of Islam in Egypt’s government at the center of the campaign, with the self-described liberal Islamist in the race coming under fire over whether his agenda is too religious or too secular.
The four-hour debate — which would have been unthinkable before last year’s ouster of Hosni Mubarak — returned repeatedly to questions about the meaning of Islamic law, its place in Egypt, and the role of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Although all the candidates say public security and the economy are the most salient issues to voters, the debate established the polarizing question of the role of Islam in public life as the main point of contrast among the leading candidates.
And both during the debate and outside, the attacks from both secularists and Islamists on Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who is campaigning as a liberal Islamist, suggested that rivals now see him as the candidate to beat.
During the debate, Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister running as the secular alternative to an “experiment” in Islamist rule, repeatedly accused Mr. Aboul Fotouh of harboring a hard-line Islamist agenda — sometimes by relying on distortions of his rival’s record.
From the other side, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that controls the Parliament, stepped up a series of attacks on Mr. Aboul Fotouh as being close to a liberal heretic. In the process, the Brotherhood appeared to cast aside its efforts as a moderate movement, sounding notably sympathetic to the arguments of ultraconservatives who want to prohibit a non-Muslim from holding the presidency or to censor literary works deemed offensive to Muslims.
At one point in the debate, Mr. Moussa picked up a copy of Mr. Aboul Fotouh’s memoirs — a manifesto for a peaceful, democratic and tolerant vision of Islamist politics — and read a line out of context, suggesting support for the use of violence. “Where is the candidate?” Mr. Moussa charged repeatedly, even after clarification. “Will he return to his position in the book?”
At another point, Mr. Moussa blamed Mr. Aboul Fotouh for the deaths of Egyptians at the hands of a violent Islamist group with which Mr. Aboul Fotouh has never had any connection. “Isn’t it time you apologize?” Mr. Moussa asked. “How do you live with all this blood on your hands?”
The Muslim Brotherhood did not participate in the debate because its presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, lags the other two in the few available opinion polls. But while Mr. Moussa was attacking Mr. Aboul Fotouh as a closet radical, the Brotherhood issued two widely publicized statements slamming him instead for his liberalism.
Mr. Aboul Fotouh, a reformist leader expelled from the Brotherhood last year in a political dispute, recently confounded the group by winning the endorsement of the largest preaching and political organizations of the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis. Salafi parties recently won nearly a quarter of the seats in Parliament, making them a crucial swing bloc in the presidential race.
Salafi leaders have explained their unexpected support for Mr. Aboul Fotouh in several ways: they concluded he was a stronger candidate than the Brotherhood’s or the other Islamists in the running; they understand that Egypt is ready only for baby steps toward their puritanical goals; they feared allowing the Brotherhood to take control of both the presidency and the Parliament; and they are uncomfortable with the Brotherhood’s demands for obedience from its members, even in politics.
Hoping to undercut the endorsement, the Brotherhood’s spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, this week published two columns recounting the Salafis’ past attacks on Mr. Aboul Fotouh for his liberal views.
“This, literally, is your opinion of what your presidential candidate says, and then you choose to support him for the biggest position in the country?” Mr. Ghozlan asked, at times coming close to endorsing the Salafis’ criticisms of Mr. Aboul Fotouh himself.
“Taking into account that the Muslim Brotherhood denounced his statements and clashed with him — then added new materials to their literature to reassert their fundamental principles — are the Brothers really the ones who let go of their fundamentals and don’t have a complete Islamist vision?” Mr. Ghozlan wrote.
In 2005, Mr. Ghozlan recounted, prominent Salafi preachers had criticized Mr. Aboul Fotouh for declaring that electoral democracy was more important than a constitution explicitly based on Islamic law. If the voters chose to remove the clause from the Egyptian constitution declaring that it is derived from the principles of Islamic law, Islamists should respect their choice, Mr. Aboul Fotouh had said, because democracy was at the heart of Islamic law.
“The radical Islamists say, ‘God,’ and we say, ‘governance of the people,’ ” Mr. Aboul Fotouh had said at the time, as Mr. Ghozlan wrote. “The real approach to democracy is governance of the people and the rotation of power.” The Salafis attacked those same quotes as sacrilege, arguing that God’s law should be supreme.
In 2003, Mr. Ghozlan recalled, the Salafis had slammed Mr. Aboul Fotouh for defending the eligibility of a Christian to hold the presidency. They also took him to task for defending the freedom of writers to publish material, “even if it called for apostasy” or described “flirtation, love and sex.”
And they were incensed that Mr. Aboul Fotouh had personally visited Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author, to urge him to publish a controversial novel, “Children of Our Alley,” which conservative Muslim scholars consider godless and profane.
Just a few years ago, Mr. Ghozlan wrote, the Salafis had even praised the Brotherhood leadership for pushing aside Mr. Aboul Fotouh and other “reformists.”
“This is a confusing position that is difficult to comprehend,” Mr. Ghozlan wrote, suggesting that Mr. Aboul Fotouh was not campaigning as a true Islamist.
In response, Sheik Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, a prominent Salafi leader addressed in the columns, acknowledged major differences with Mr. Aboul Fotouh over his “permissiveness.”
But at the same time, Sheik Shahat said, Salafis agreed with Mr. Aboul Fotouh’s longstanding opposition to the Brotherhood leadership over its intolerance of internal dissent and tight control of its political party. Since the group’s nomination of Mr. Morsi, even fellow Islamists had come to fear that the Brotherhood leaders were power-hungry, Sheik Shahat wrote, in part because of “the aggressive position of some of Dr. Morsi’s supporters against all those who supported Dr. Aboul Fotouh.”
Mayy El Sheikh and Kareem Fahim contributed reporting.