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Candidate Aboul Fotouh highlights diversity of Egypt's Islamists

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh has emerged as a top candidate in next week's Egyptian presidential elections.

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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.

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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.

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.”

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.

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