Cairo, Egypt – The man who could be this country’s first democratically elected president sat on a stage in Cairo’s upmarket Zamalek district last night, waiting patiently.
As a stream of speakers sang his praises, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh smiled and waved occasionally to the crowd. Days before the voting begins, he seemed calm.
A grey-haired, bespectacled doctor and a former high-ranking member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Aboul Fotouh is running perhaps the first “big tent” movement in recent Egyptian political history. He has seemingly, and improbably, united hardline Salafis and progressive tech geeks, reportedly promising Islamic law to one and a civil state to the other.
As the hours elapsed and the speakers came and went, his brand became clear: first a Tahrir Square revolutionary, then a Muslim scholar, then a liberal actress, then an Islamist politician. Wael Ghonim, the former Google executive arrested during the revolution, was preceded at the podium by Emad Abdel Ghafour, the leader of Egypt’s most powerful Salafi political party.
Each looked out into the crowd of several thousand, the jib camera swinging out to broadcast beaming faces, and spoke of a united Egypt that saw no difference between rural southerners and urbane northerners, Christian minorities and Muslim majorities.
Among the people, women in conservative black abaya and niqab and bushy bearded men strolled the dusty grounds of the Gezira Club past hipsters in black-rimmed glasses and graffiti-splashed t-shirts. Eager volunteers in the bright orange gear of the campaign waved flags and rushed about, and in the excitement of the moment, everything seemed to be working.
But can it hold?
When Aboul Fotouh finally spoke, he praised the revolution’s “martyrs” and outlined his plan for a “civil, democratic state,” what he called masr wasatiyya [“moderate Egypt”]. But secular-minded liberals have begun to doubt his authenticity. Their concerns were not allayed when Aboul Fotouh received a broad Salafist endorsement.
The Nour Party and its Salafi allies, who won roughly a quarter of seats in parliament, seem sure about who they’re supporting – after the party officially endorsed Aboul Fotouh late last month.
“I think the liberals, they don’t mind implementing the Islamic sharia,” said Ali Shaheen, a 23-year-old student at Al Azhar University, the world’s leading seat of Sunni theology, who stood watching in the back of the crowd. “Abdel Moneim talks about the Islamic sharia very clearly, it’s not just about the punishments, the hudud, like the press talks about, sharia intends justice.”
Outside, as Aboul Fotouh finished, four young men who had travelled by bus from El Arish, in the northern Sinai Peninsula, joked and popped roasted seeds into their mouths. Ayoub Ibrahim enumerated his support for Aboul Fotouh: he’s Islamic, politically unaffiliated, more popular than the others – and participated in the revolution.
Nearby, two women in niqab waiting for a taxi with their daughter offered some hope to Egypt’s anxious liberals. Though supporters of the Nour Party, they said Aboul Fotouh’s religious inclination wasn’t their top priority.
“The most important thing is social justice, that no one is above the law and that he restores security,” Manal Farouk said. “The interpretation of Islam is not a problem. Hosni [Mubarak] is a Muslim and he screwed us – and there is no democracy with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
With additional reporting by Nagham Osman.