A radical Islamist as a student, Abou El-Fotouh is now a leading member of the banned-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood’s dovish camp
Whenever he got wind of a concert scheduled to be held on the Cairo University campus, Abdel Monem Abou El-Fotouh would give orders to his followers to gather at the site and recite Qur’an in an attempt to thwart an event he believed was contradictory to Islam.
“That is how we used to prevent a party from happening,” remembers Abou El-Fotouh, the founder of one of the most notorious radical Islamist groups that emerged on Egyptian campuses in the early 1970s, Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Society). “We would not attack anybody [However], once one of us finished reciting, another would take over until concert organizers gave up and left,” recalls Abou El-Fotouh, who served as the president of the Student Union of Cairo University and laid the seeds of the organization in the Egyptian capital.
Al-Jama’a soon developed branches nationwide as the organization’s message attracted sympathizers on other campuses.
In retrospect, the man who is today a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau dismisses his former group’s methodology as “cruel” and “gruff.” Despite his radical conservatism in the past, Abou El-Fotouh has recently come to the forefront as one of the leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood’s dovish camp, promoting democratic liberal values within the ranks of the nation’s oldest Islamist opposition group.
The group currently constitutes the biggest opposition bloc in the People’s Assembly as its candidates won almost 20 percent of seats in the PA during last fall’s three-stage election.
“Persuasion is what really counts. I managed to prevent my comrades from holding a party, which I object to; however, did I succeed in persuading him [of the rightness of my cause]? No. To the contrary: He would not stop cursing me because I prevented him from doing what he wanted,” says Abou El-Fotouh.
The activist, now 55 years old, enrolled at Cairo University’s medical school in 1970, a year in which leftist doctrine dominated student political discourse on most Egyptian campuses.
“When I entered the university, I had no political leanings except my instinctual religious tendencies. I was neither a leftist, nationalist, Islamist nor a member of the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Abou El-Fotouh. “The explicit monopolization of student activities by the leftist stream and the sponsorship of publications that downgraded sacred values, the Qur’an, etc, provoked us as independent students, who did not belong to any political camp. It made us start caring more about our Islam, whether by observing its teachings or by forming an Islamic organization.”
Although Abou El-Fotouh says he was motivated to form Al-Jama’a to defend his faith, he explains that his former group did not develop a distinct ideology of its own. Instead, he insists, it drew on several schools of Islamist political thought. “At that point, the readings of that [political] current included [books on] the school of thought of the Muslim Brotherhood, the salafi and the jihadi thoughts. The Islamic current on campus was a mixture of all that,” he remembers.
“I did not see Egyptian society as one of infidels. To me, it was a society of delinquents. Al-Jama’a never reached the point of excommunicating others, but we used to ‘magnify’ sins, which ultimately resulted in a sort of animosity between us and the rest of society,” says Abou El-Fotouh, who now holds that this spirit contradicts the essence of Islam and that the da’wa (Islamic mission) is based on affection, tenderness and interaction with others.
He blames his group’s adherence to a rigid interpretation of faith on a lack of guidance.
“We received no orientation at that point. The one who really saved us was Sheikh Mohamed El-Ghazali [a heavyweight Azharite scholar and one of the early members of the Muslim brotherhood],” says Abou El-Fotouh. “We all used to go attend El-Ghazali’s Friday sermon at Amr Ibn Al-A’as mosque [in old Cairo]. His sermon served as a weekly lesson for us,” recounts Abou El-Fotouh, explaining that El-Ghazali’s words helped him accept that society was not all evil.
But it was President Anwar Sadat’s release of jailed Muslim Brotherhood leaders in the mid-1970s that had the biggest impact on his evolving political worldview. “Omar El-Telmessani [then supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood] was allowed to preach on campus. That’s when our intransigent views on women and our animosity toward society began to change,” he remembers.
Many analysts claim it was Abou El-Fotouh who was behind the reinvigoration of the Brotherhood in the mid-1970s. As leader of Al-Jama’a’s branch in Cairo, he forged an agreement with the Brotherhood’s leaders to merge his group with the ailing organization. The tens of thousands of students who belonged to his society throughout Egypt’s governorates promptly followed suit.
But in the late 1970s, a number of original members of Al-Jama’a in Upper Egypt objected to the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies and formed a splinter group, says Abou El-Fotouh. They kept the name Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya, but they also endorsed the use of violence. Their cells, it is believed, orchestrated the assassination of Sadat in 1981 as well as a wave of terrorist attacks that rocked the country in the 1990s.
“One’s readings, mind-set and views have changed. However, it was our integration in the society, our membership in student unions and our membership in labor unions later on, that left the strongest impact on us. This makes me value those who say, ‘Let the Muslim Brotherhood interact with society and grant them legitimacy’,” says Abou El-Fotouh. “Any organization should be granted legitimacy. Even a[n atheist] communist organization should be left free to communicate with society. The wheels of society can bring the Islamists, communists and liberals closer to each other just like those wheels can marginalize or discard any group,” he adds.
Abou El-Fotouh, who holds an MA in Hospital Management and Health Planning and an LLM in Law from Cairo University’s Faculty of Law, in addition to his undergraduate degree in medicine, serves as the general manager of the hospitals owned by the Islamic Medial Society, a charity founded by a number of Islamist doctors. He also remains an active board member of Egypt’s Physicians’ Syndicate, where he served as secretary-general from 1988-92, and is currently secretary-general of the Arab Physicians’ Syndicate.
In secular political and intellectual circles, Abou El-Fotouh enjoys a remarkable position: He is a founding member of the Egyptian Movement for Change, better known as Kifaya.
Shortly after the Brotherhood’s remarkable victory in last year’s parliamentary elections, Abou El-Fotouh paid a visit to renowned author Naguib Mahfouz on the occasion of the Nobel Laureate’s 94th birthday, which was attended by a number of Egyptian authors.
But greeting Mahfouz on his birthday was not the only objective of Abou El-Fotouh’s visit. He explains that he wanted to diffuse intellectuals’ fears of the Muslim Brotherhood. In previous parliaments, independent MPs affiliated with the Brotherhood campaigned tirelessly against books they claimed undermined the Islamic faith.
Abou El-Fotouh stressed the group’s commitment to freedom of expression and its objection to all forms of censorship. He also condoned the publishing of Mahfouz’s banned novel The Children of the Alley, which was deemed “blasphemous” by Azharite scholars when it was first published in the 1950s. (Some fundamentalists went further, accusing Mahfouz of apostasy and condoning his execution. The edicts culminated in an attempt on Mahfouz’s life by two young fundamentalists in 1994.)
Yet most critics contend that the majority of the Muslim Brotherhood’s members do not subscribe to Abou El-Fotouh’s liberal views, saying the group is still dominated by hardliners who hold the same conservative views of its founders.
Abou El-Fotouh refutes this theory, maintaining that most members are indeed of his school of thought. “The group’s mainstream is this centrist stream. Actually, I am not the only person that represents that current: Mohammed Mahdi Akef himself [the group’s current supreme guide] represents it better than me. That is the mainstream, and we have some people on the left of the spectrum who are very moderate and think that we have to relinquish some values in order to communicate with society, something that will never happen. And we have others on the right of the spectrum who are very, very intransigent,” he confesses.
Claiming his group is a democratic entity, Abou El-Fotouh argues that the ongoing official ban on its activities is an obstacle to the practice of a fully participatory democracy. “We want this democratic entity to be scrutinized by the media, society and the judiciary. This will guarantee the practice of democracy and shura [consultation]. The monitoring would be beneficial to us we want the press to cover our [internal] elections because such coverage might come up with a critique of our democratic experience.”
In April 2005, Abou El-Fotouh took observers by surprise when he spoke out against the group’s long-standing tradition of brandishing copies of the Qur’an at demonstrations. He reportedly asked the group’s followers, who were rallying downtown to protest restrictions on public liberties, to put down their copies of the Holy Book. The demonstrators promptly heeded his demand.
“I asked them to do that for two reasons: First, we are in a political competition with our compatriots and we are not talking about the camp of Islam versus that of so-called infidels,” he explains. “Second, copies of the Qur’an should not be raised in a political competition; it belongs to all of us, whether we are the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Democratic Party, the Nasserists or El-Tagammuah Party.”
Abou El-Fotouh has been a member of the Guidance Bureau since the mid-1980s. In 1995, he was among 62 group leaders who were arrested and convicted of attempting to overthrow the regime. The arrests came ahead of the parliamentary elections which the group was planning to contest. Abou El-Fotouh was sentenced by a military court to five years in prison.
“The Muslim Brotherhood represents neither God nor Islam, but it is one of the existing factions that all have the right to represent Islam. What we offer society is not a sacred religion, but our understanding of Islam. If people refuse my platform, that does not mean they are against Islam, but that they are against the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says.
Abou El-Fotouh is also remarkable for his staunch opposition to the Brotherhood slogan demanding “The Establishment of an Islamic State.”
“I do not agree with that, because when you say, ‘The Establishment of an Islamic State,’ it implies that the existing state is un-Islamic. Is it a communist state? Is it an infidel state? Tell me.”
In the meantime, Abou El-Fotouh still defends his group, claiming that this phrase is in fact used to mean the creation of a union of all Islamic states rather than the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt.
In March 2004, the group’s supreme guide launched an initiative for comprehensive reform in Egypt where he affirmed the group’s commitment to political pluralism, women’s rights and equal rights for Copts. The initiative was criticized by the secular intelligentsia for some of its vague terms. It also fell short of diffusing the fears of Copts who believe they are still discriminated against and are denied the right to occupy the highest posts in the country.
Does that mean he would accept a Coptic prime minister or president? “Yes,” he says, “even if that’s unlikely to come to pass.”
“If you are a Muslim and you are choosing between a just Muslim candidate and a just Christian candidate, you will likely vote for the Muslim and not the Christian. That is not shameful, but normal,” he says. “However, why would we deny a Christian the right to run for president? Whether Muslims would vote for him or not is another story. Since we agreed upon citizenship rights, all people have the right to run [for president],” says Abou El-Fotouh.
On women’s rights, Abou El-Fotouh maintains that there are no religious grounds for denying women the right to be elected president. However, his group is still divided over this issue, he says, and “the question of allowing a woman to become a president is debatable and does not constitute a fundamental issue.”
Instead, the Islamist party Abou El-Fotouh envisages draws on the same norms as those embraced by Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AK) which reached power through democratic peaceful means. In November 2002, AK won almost a two-thirds majority in the Turkish Parliament, which allowed party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan to form the government. Despite the party’s Islamist leanings, Erdogan has confirmed his government’s commitment to Turkey’s secularism, a stance that Abou El-Fotouh categorically opposes.
Although Turkey is a practicing democracy, its army remains a force to be reckoned with and is widely regarded there as the guardian of the country’s secular constitution. The army forced out Turkey’s first Islamist-led government in 1997 on the grounds that it breached the country’s secular norms.
Here in Egypt, Abou El-Fotouh is optimistic about the future of the Islamist movement given the results of the latest parliamentary elections. He concludes, “I am on the same wavelength with my people and the proof is that they elected this number of [Muslim Brotherhood candidates].” et