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Larbi Sadiki
Larbi Sadiki
Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).
The 'blueprint' for Arab Muslim democrats
Aboul Fotouh has proven track record, making him a key player in the future of Egypt's political transition.
Last Modified: 04 Jun 2012 10:35
More than 40 years ago, Dr Aboul Fotouh defended Egypt and Egyptians in a rare audience with the Pharaoh that was Sadat, accusing him of hypocrisy. He did that as a student in his early 20s [AP]

Cairo, Egypt - Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is unique. He has a long history of fighting against the political power structures within Egypt. These experiences have enabled him to develop the much needed stamina and exceptional qualities to help reshape his country's political landscape.

In this historical juncture of Egypt's democratic reconstruction, Aboul Fotouh is a credible figure, and refuses to hold any grudges against the Ikhwan. He speaks about them with a tone affection and respect. He is now rooting for Dr Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (EMB) in their quest for the presidency. However,this may seem strange, as the EMB, where Aboul Fotouh was for decades schooled in politics and activism, is primarily what stood between him and the presidency. In fact, the EMB partly fielded its own candidate to deny one of its rebellious prodigal sons for with refusal to close ranks with the formidable Ikhwan.

There are two reasons for this. The able and seasoned EMB stalwart, Dr Morsi, shares many of the qualities and political values that distinguish Aboul Fotouh. More importantly, Aboul Fotouh is a humble leader who places premium on ideas, institutions and values - less so on personalities.

Based on 20 years of contact with and knowledge of the physician, I suspect that little will stand in the way of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh from reconciling with the EMB and playing a major mediating role in the lead-up to the mid-June Morsi-Shafiq runoff election to decide Egypt's first civilian and democratically elected president.

"Of all the Islamists I met and engaged with in discussion over democracy during that period... [only] Aboul Fotouh... felt at ease with the concept and the whole notion of good government."

Abdel Moneim who?

I recall meeting the Aboul Fotouh in 1992 - still a fresh doctoral candidate at the Australian National University. The subject of my investigation was notions of democracy in the discourse of four Islamist movements - Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (EMB), Tunisia's Nahda Party (NP), Jordan Islamic Action Front (IAF), and Sudan's Islamic Front led then by Hassan Al-Turabi.

Of all of the Islamists I met and engaged with in discussion over democracy during that period, coming soon after the Algerian debacle, Aboul Fotouh was amongst the limited number of interlocutors who felt at ease with that concept and the whole notion of good government. Then, the concept was not as yet popular with most Islamists. Not even the creative Rashid Ghannouchi, whom I sat with and interviewed many times for the purpose of my PhD and beyond, had at the time acquired a firm grip on the term. It was largely considered for being a specifically Western concept underpinned by Western values.

At the time, 'democracy' in Islamist parlance, lacked the scruples and rigour of shura, Islam's consultative ethos, even though the likes of the innovative Hassan Al-Turabi in Sudan sought a move towards defining a shura-democracy synthesis. Regardless, cynicism prevailed and the fact that that Algeria's generals booted out democracy violently and with Western approval or indifference - indefinitely postponing a short-lived experiment in pluralist politics - added to doubts about the future of Western democracy.

The ray of hope came from Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. The research looked gloomy - with the qualified exception of sophisticated discourse by the NP exiles in France - which at time counted amongst their ranks Habib Mokni, Ridha Idriss, Lotfi Zitoun and of course Ghannouchi himself.

Egyptians cast ballots in presidential poll

Aboul Fotouh did not fear democracy nor did he get bogged down into the semantics of how to wed shura and democracy. Younger by 20 years than his current  61 years of age but no less mature intellectually, he was always quick to point out that the spirit of Islam, or the maqasid, the Godly sanctions, were intended to deliver humanity from oppression in its entirety and facilitate eudemonia (happiness) in this world and the hereafter. As a system dedicated to self-governance, democracy for 41-year-old Aboul Fotouh did not then contradict with the spirit of Islam.

Listening to his ideas was a reassurance that Islamist discourses were nuanced.  It encouraged me to get on with the inquiry upon return to the ANU. Over the years, I was able to interview him more than a dozen times. In a down-to-earth manner, he reasons that "Islam's gems and beauty are validated only through the travails of continuous testing... " Theory is for the theologians; but lived Islam is for the mortals who translate God's word. When they err, Dr Aboul Fotouh reasons, they can keep on trying to improve till they find the right balance, according to time, space and good intention, in bridging the gap between the theory of Islam and practice, that is to embrace Islam and live up to Godly sanctions.

Not even in Egypt with its huge pool of intellectual talent, was that kind of thinking commonplace. Dr Aboul Fotouh was then, as he is today a breath of fresh air. There was intellectual resonance in his discourse hinting at deep influence by one of the Muslim world's most exegetical minds, his compatriot the late Sheikh Mohammed Al-Ghazzali.

I had the privilege of interviewing many of the leading voices with the EMB for over twenty years, including the Brotherhood's current candidate, the versatile and modest Dr Morsi, and consider Dr Aboul Fotouh to be a class act. However, he has one flaw, his Achilles' heel as it were: he is very honest to the point of having an absensce of political cunning or guile.

I have sought to profile Dr Aboul Fotouh by tracing his robust intellectual and moral lineage as an uncompromising defender and practitioner of both Islam and democracy. Egypt's post-Mubarak leadership calls for figures that have what it takes to be aided by Islam and democracy so that they, in turn, can aid both.

"All of those contesting the presidency in Egypt must be asked where they were in 1977 when Aboul Fotouh stood up to Sadat. That was a historical day."

The assets that will make Dr Aboul Fotouh prominent during this phase of transition are all contained within him as a socio-political and moral quality. The twist in all of this is that man who might denied him the presidency, Dr Morsi, learnt his activism, dedication, discipline and politics in the same school as Aboul Fotouh: the Ikhwan.

The pharaoh and the student

First, no profile of Dr Aboul Fotouh is complete without distilling meaning from his encounter with Egypt's second and omnipotent president, the late Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat.

All of those who contested the presidency in Egypt must be asked where they were in 1977 when Aboul Fotouh stood up to Sadat. That was a historical day - in my view, the day when Dr Aboul Fotouh's campaign for a democratic Egypt began.

To stand up to Sadat, a kind of Pharaoh reincarnate, was no small political feat. He spoke eloquently and fearlessly. Dr Aboul Fotouh, then only 26 years-old, took a jab at Sadat when he rose to speak, to lambast sycophantic or hypocritical figures the president kept in his posse. The young physician was referring to the dismal state of civil and political rights when non-establishment preachers were banned, including at the time, Sheikh Al-Ghazzali.  As the elected president of the Cairo University's Representative Council at the time, Aboul Fotouh had the detention of student protesters uppermost in his mind before Sadat retorted with his own scorn ending the young Islamist's verbal outburst.

In those few minutes in 1977, Dr Aboul Fotouh managed to settle Egypt's Pharaoh more than did, at the time, the entire media and any other oppositional network, long before the rise of legalised political parties. Sadat called the meeting after the 1977 bread riots or uprising and was not interested in a discussion - he was seeking to calm down an explosive atmosphere in Egypt.The young physician paid a high price for that short but moral stand - and as Aboul Fotouh recounts this fondly, he never regretted speaking truth to power - as it were. He was not only barred from teaching at medical schools, but was also imprisoned in 1981, during Sadat's last month of fury against civil society and all kinds of dissidents - the next month he was assassinated.


So Dr Aboul Fotouh's interest in public affairs is not new. In the prime of youth he stood up for Egypt against a man who could have easily locked him indefinitely and thrown away the keys. In an act of defiance in an audience with the highest patriarch in a patrimonial regime, Dr Aboul Fotouh did not mince his words. He seized the moment, at the same time showing dissidence way beyond the call of duty.

Aboul Fotouh is not someone who would fail to display leadership - and this includes an ability to differ honestly and openly. This is trait is undoubtedly the cause behind his demise within the EMB. He broke ranks, rejecting the ritual of obedience or perhaps the culture of deference expected of high-ranking leaders within the EMB's structure. He would have been a natural choice for presidential candidate had he kept his senior position in the brotherhood.

Making those kinds of rare stands in dealing with both adversaries and allies distinguishes Aboul Fotouh as someone with ample leadership qualities. Without it he would not have risen to prominence as a member of the inner circle running the Ikhwan, losing five years to incarceration (between 1996 and 2001), and imprisonment a few years ago that almost cost him his life. For years he was elected to preside over the Arab doctors' association. Like other Ikhwan political stars, Aboul Fotouh was a leader coached in the art of politics within the Egyptian students' representative councils, the breeding grounds of activists and future leaders.

Three ideas follow from the above:

  • Dr Aboul Fotouh's moral courage and integrity are very difficult to beat - and they are not fake, learnt of late to suit the electoral campaign.
  • Dr Aboul Fotouh has got no bone of apologism in his body (politic).
  • Dr Aboul Fotouh relates to the youth of Egypt's revolution more than any other political figure in Egypt. He was in his early 20s when he challenged Sadat. So it is no coincidence that he was the first (of the candidates) to descend to Tahrir Square as Egypt's revolution began to gather momentum. This affinity with youth remains robust and makes him along the likes of Hamdeen Sabbahi and Ahmad Maher, amongst others, people's leaders.

Re-branding power

A major asset one can additionally accredit to Aboul Fotouh is his grass-roots activism. In fact, one may call it to his 'trans-humanism'. The ethos of his profession (as he puts it when I last spoke with him), was that humanism knows no borders - just like medicine. "A physician", he observes, "sees patients. A doctor does not look for ideology, colour or class." This is Aboul Fotouh's metaphor for curing Egypt of the ills of 60 years of authoritarianism.

"Aboul Fotouh has a global political identity... as a physician helping people in conflict zones."

And with the safe hands and the humanity of a professional surgeon, he would address the ills not be concerned about who is Muslim or Copt, man or woman, poor or rich. It is this indiscriminate ethos of his profession that Aboul Fotouh operationalises in his politics as he coalesces with others to help ease Egypt into smooth democratic transition.

Aboul Fotouh's 'trans-humanism' goes back to decades of grass-roots activism in the EMB's medical caravans and the Arab Doctors' Association, which was proactive everywhere it could from Bosnia to Gaza. Like the experienced Amr Moussa, Aboul Fotouh has a global political identity: the former in the UN as Egypt's permanent representative in 1990, the latter as a physician helping people in conflict zones.

With the same dedication, partly owed to the activism he engaged in as an EMB member, and along 'comrades-in-arms' such the Ikhwan senior figure Dr Essam Al-Eryan, Dr Jamal Hishmat or Dr Mohamed Al Beltagi, Aboul Fotouh knows his Egypt. Local activism took him and others to all corners of the country, vaccinating and providing relief wherever and whenever possible.

Like Dr Morsi, Aboul Fotouh did a great deal of door-knocking and grass-roots work. Like Dr Morsi, Aboul Fotouh's activism was not just about pandering to an Islamist identity, but also an expression of patriotism that sought to do politics from the bottom up when opportunities for institutional transformation were blocked. In this respect, he shares some of the political values of Hamdeen and Maher.

Aboul Fotouh contested parliamentary elections and in the height of the re-emergence in the 1990s of the Ikhwan as an active political force. So he is, as he says it, not "strange to playing by the rules of the political game, including fair opportunity for all contesting power and equal citizenship for all to participate." In one sense, like the EMB's candidate, Aboul Fotouh knows politics both as an insider, a former MP, and an outsider, a dissident and a civil rights activist par excellence who did stick his neck out and paid a price for his anti-authoritarian stand.

Through his contest of the Arab Spring's first democratic presidential elections, along with others such as Hamdeen, Aboul Fotouh contributed to a most riveting exercise of re-branding politics in Egypt. In those elections, Amr Moussa was by any standards a household name, partly a relic of the Mubarak era, and at 75 he was over-playing the pair safe-of-hands-type language, harking back to the ousted regimes dictums and metaphors: stability and anti-Islamism. Like Shafiq, Moussa most probably did draw more mature voters. However, they were both shunned by the youth who view him as 'felool' - remnant of the old regime.

It is Aboul Fotouh, Hamdeen and, without a doubt Dr Morsi, who are re-branding politics. Like them, he contested the presidential elections without a 'trade-mark' - except for powerful Egyptian-ness and readiness to serve. This new brand of politicians inducts into formal power politics former prisoners - continuing the conversion in the Arab Spring geography of former inmates into power bidders and holders. It is the powerfully emerging political branding of activism and victimhood that yield legitimacy and credibility. 

Aboul Fotouh: The Islamist insider-outsider

The current cycle in the Arab Spring geography, and potentially in the entire Arab Middle East, favours the Islamists. It is difficult to imagine Shafiq winning these elections.

Aboul Fotouh is a kind of potential connector with the Ikhwan in one sense, and in another the antidote that can counteract the inevitable domination of the EMB. The EMB is taking huge risk in pursuing a policy to prevail at all levels - reversing earlier gradualist positions. So for the Islamists wanting to protect the EMB from itself, Aboul Fotouh is the perfect compromise: they get an Islamist facilitator or moderator, including in the process of constitution-framing, who is able to limit embedding current power politics in a total EMB matrix.

It is a classic case of 'knowledge being power'. Moussa can deal with the EMB only through polarisation and so would Shafiq. Aboul Fotouh has an insider's grasp of what makes the EMB tick - he knows their strengths and weaknesses. His latest publication, a quasi-autobiography about his years within the Ikhwan, is very insightful in this regard and is a must for those curious about the EMB's political history.

Talk to Al Jazeera - Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh: Egypt's future

In a way, the EMB's current success and brilliant adaptation to the post-Mubarak era through a political party originated well before the January 25 Revolution. Aboul Fotouh and other brilliant minds within the EMB have been planning the creation of a political party for years. I was privy to some of that knowledge as I've been following the politics of the Ikhwan for 20 years. He can claim credit for part of the EMB's success, when ideas of carving a margin of existence within civil society through professional syndicates began to be entrenched under the guidance of the late Mamoun Al-Hudaybi. In fact, many of the political stars in Egypt's current democratic reconstruction are the by-product of that era including the Wasat Party leaders, an offshoot from the Ikhwan.

The transition in Egypt requires the skill of someone who can relate to the Ikhwan. Aboul Fotouh left the EMB but ideologically he shares their moral paradigm but with one advantage: ability to play a mediatory role, allowing great inclusiveness of non-Islamist voices. This could make for a consensual transitional political culture at this critical phase of Egypt's fledgling democratic reconstruction.  He subscribes to the philosophy of 'Egypt to all Egyptians'.

An Egypt that works

Dr Aboul Fotouh's clearly has a strong hunger for knowledge coupled with a robust work ethic. When in prison in the mid-1990s, like other Ikhwan leaders such as Al-Eryan, he worked hard to re-educate himself. He read law and theology amongst other subjects, obtaining degrees in these fields.

Aboul Fotouh's most distinctive asset is his belief that Egypt is rich - not poor as many tend to think - and that a plan to make all of Egypt work is the way forward so that this great nation ascends in developmental terms and emulates India, China, Brazil, Turkey, Korea and other Asian Tigers who are active players in the global economy.

He finds Islam to suit this objective through a powerful ethical toolkit enjoining the good, and equipping Muslims to work and produce ethically, to be disciplined and engage in open and mutual learning with all nations for the greater sake of equal and durable development. And for this, Aboul Fotouh views good governance and democratic norms as part of the panacea of all Arab states.

For him, development requires 'long and sustainable peace' not 'long wars' that sap moral and material energies. This is why to a large extent the dichotomy Islamist-non-Islamist is diluted in his thinking. The terms of dealing with the world and managing politics call for new thinking: how to bridge the gap of the haves and the have-nots, the developed and the non-developed. As a perennial student, Aboul Fotouh views knowledge as the challenge of this century for the Arab Spring geography.

Against all odds…

I think, Dr Aboul Fotouh was destined to play a big role in his country's politics, and in the reshaping of polity through coalition building, and dialogue. The presidency when he contested the politics of a mighty president and protested against the abuse of power - to this end, his past struggle and service to the Egyptian and Arab publics places him ahead of many leaders.

Aboul Fotouh has the vision and leadership to adjust to the new turn of events after the first round of elections. The challenge to measure up to is no longer about campaigning for the single figure to occupy the presidency. Rather it is about the pooling of the endless talents and activists whose role is to protect Egypt's glorious revolution whilst, at the same time, building a culture of compromise, dialogue, pluralism, inclusiveness and mutual obligation in order to set the most important Arab country on the path to greatness: democratic, cultural and economic.

More than 40 years ago, Dr Aboul Fotouh defended Egypt and Egyptians in a rare audience with the Pharaoh that was Sadat, accusing him of hypocrisy. He did that as a student in his early 20s. One fifth of those who voted in the May presidential elections have endorsed his leadership. It will prove vital in the coming months and years as he and others collectively reconstruct a democratic Egypt.

For Aboul Fotouh, a new and tougher test begins: not to be president but to work with others so that regardless of who is elected president, Egypt is ascendant.

Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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