The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged aboulfotouh
In Translation: Aboul Fotouh on culture wars and patriotism

For the last few weeks – not for a lack of more serious things to talk about – the Egyptian media has fixated on two different aspects of the longstanding culture wars the country has fought over religion and public life. One is the brouhaha caused by TV personality Islam al-Beheiri and his frontal attack on al-Azhar for needing reform; the other is the lament by the writer Cherif Choubashi that Egyptian women should take off their veils. These type of storms in teacups have been standard for decades, they used to be a favorite issue for the Muslim Brotherhood to champion and embarrass the government under Mubarak. But what now that the Brotherhood is exiled and underground, and that current strongman Sisi is himself issuing calls for religious reform?

In the piece below, former presidential candidate, pre-2011 Brotherhood leader and head of the Strong Egypt party Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh gives a stab at an answer, from what we would venture to say is a somewhat post-Islamist perspective. Translation from the original Arabic is provided, as always, by the stupendous team at Industry Arabic. Please give a go for your translation needs, you won't be sorry.

Freedom: Between “Compulsion” and a Culture of “Non-Compulsion”

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Al-Shorouq, 21 April 2015

Some people may be surprised to hear that the culture of “non-compulsion” is essentially a religious one. It constitutes one of the things that I have learned and come to understand from our great religion Islam. Religious texts clarify this beyond any debate or discussion, in a manner wide enough to embrace the meaning of freedom in its intellectual, behavioral and social understandings and applications. Matters of belief and disbelief are of prime importance due to their intimate association with man’s life and afterlife. Such matters are left to freedom of choice and free will: {Then whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve}.[1] Because religion always wants man to attain the highest possible perfections of his humanity, freedom of choice and free will are among the primary things that unite religion to human reason.

Egyptian women are currently on the receiving end of an aggressive assault to compel them to choose their dress and appearance in accordance with the preferences of certain figures who have used the media and particularly satellite channels in a provocative and incomprehensible manner. They have turned their discussion about such choices from being about a personal opinion to a social and national issue, ignoring the fact that social phenomena have their own determinants and circumstances that shape them and contribute to their perpetuation or disappearance. And indeed, various studies have dealt with this subject at an advanced level of understanding and interpretation.

However, those in the media who shrilly discuss the clothing of Egyptian women ignore these scientific facts and avoid approaching the matter from a scientific and cultural angle, because clothing is a social and cultural manifestation. For example, the sari worn by Indian women is a social manifestation of Indian culture, but the noble anti-imperialist leaders in India considered it a symbol of independence against British occupation – which not only sought to occupy the land, but also people’s minds and thoughts. And this is what has happened with some intellectuals here in Egypt, unfortunately.

Here I would like to raise several points:

  • Today, Egyptian women are becoming the object of ideological and political conflict. But women have full capacity and ability and freedom of choice just like men, and it is shameful and extremely degrading for society as a whole and not just women for a woman’s personal matter (her manner of clothing) to be exploited to settle political and ideological scores. Egyptian women have heard one man speak about the pain and bitterness he has felt seeing Egyptian women veiled since the late 1960s, and that the time has come to put an end to this pain and bitterness. But it is not clear what the Egyptian woman’s freedom to choose her own clothes has to do with this man’s pain and bitterness.

  • Every day confirms that there are many intellectual currents that do not understand the meaning of freedom and only apply or exercise it according to their own whim and choice. This is something disgraceful and shameful for us all. Societies have advanced and made great strides in their understanding of democracy and secularism to the level that they recognize free will and the freedom to embrace, advocate and implement ideas so long as they do not conflict with the freedom of others.

  • Intellectuals are still setting their own priorities on the basis of their intellectual and ideological choices and not national or patriotic grounds. In this context, I feel the need to raise the idea that national allegiance is an absolute priority, even amid various other affiliations and loyalties.

  • The nation is now going through a critical phase with regards to the unity and coherence of its ranks amid regional dangers that are multiplying and expanding every day.

  • Al-Azhar enjoys great prestige in the eyes of all Egyptians, as a mosque, university and national historic institution. This prestige has amplified the stances taken by it as an institution and by its renowned scholars, particularly with regards to the concept of moderation and refusal to excommunicate any Muslim whatever his political and intellectual positions. Attempts to impugn and assail Al-Azhar, its Grand Imam and its scholars are far outside the nation’s prevailing mainstream views.

  • Intellectuals and those with different views should lay their secondary disputes aside so that the entire national community may rally around matters, aims and choices of supreme importance. Of course people’s clothes are not among such crucial issues, especially at this decisive moment in history where we are engaged in building the political structure of the nation (strong political parties and a strong parliament), its economic structure (GDP growth and development), its social structure (eliminating illiteracy and hunger), and its intellectual structure (education and scientific research).

I will close by calling on everyone – the authorities, political forces, intellectuals and intellectual movements – to consider that the last group that engaged in exclusion, score settling and escalation of disagreement brought about a great loss that was suffered by only one side: the nation as a whole.

  1. Quran 18:29  ↩

In Translation: "The army's job is to protect us from foreign enemies, not each other"

Once again, the team at Industry Arabic brings us a new installment in our In Translation series. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is a Brotherhood leader who left the organization to run as a moderate Islamist candidate in the 2012 presidential election. He is the leader of the Strong Egypt party. His party campaigned both against the Brotherhood's constitution, and against the one that recently passed (a few of its members were just given 3-year sentences for handing out flyers encouraging a No vote). We include the original headline and introduction, although it is rather inaccurate and tendentious -- Aboul Fotouh spends most of the interview criticizing the army's intervention and does not actually suggest that the Brotherhood is supporting potential presidential candidate General Sami Anan, just that they would sooner vote for him than for Aboul Fotouh himself. 

Aboul Fotouh in a conversation with Al-Ahram: “I reject the participation of the religious current in the political process…Morsi is a failure…what happened at the Presidential Palace was a crime”

Interview – Zeinab Abdel Razzak and Karima Abdel Ghani

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the chairman of the Strong Egypt Party, has announced that he will not be running for presidential elections. [He stated] along with this announcement what he felt were strong justifications, while others feel they were a cover for the decline in popularity of the Islamist current on the Egyptian street. Others still went so far as to say it was part of a prior agreement to clear the field for Sami Anan to be the Muslim Brotherhood candidate.

However, in his conversation with Al-Ahram, Aboul Fotouh asserted that his popularity in the Egyptian street had doubled, and that if he were to run in the upcoming elections, he would receive many times more votes than he had in the previous election. He stated that he rejects the Islamist current’s support for him and outright opposes the presence of Islamists in political life. Concerning the Brotherhood, Aboul Fotouh confirmed that the organization is “prepared to stand behind Sami Anan and not behind me.” As for reconciliation, he indicated he had made efforts in this regard, but was met with intransigence from both sides, though he is continuing his efforts.

The heated discussion with Aboul Fotouh revolved around these and other thorny issues, rubbing him the wrong way at times. In any case, however, frankness is the overarching quality of this interview.

Why are you not running in the upcoming presidential elections?

I made this decision early on, more specifically when I called for early presidential elections. At that time I made it known that I would not be running, as the Muslim Brotherhood had harshly attacked me because I called for the early elections. They accused me of seeking to run myself. However, my call was prompted by President Mohammed Morsi’s weak performance and failure to keep his promises. I felt it necessary to save our country and our nation from chaos. This is what I had been calling for throughout the three months leading up to June 30. We were rushed and I was personally shocked on July 3, thus I differentiate between June 30 and July 3.

Don’t you think that the army's intervention at the request of the masses protected the country from a civil war and all-out massacres?

Claiming that what happened on July 3 transpired in order to face down the prospect of a civil war is untrue. I reject such claims, since we don’t have Sunnis and Shiites or Christians and Muslims that are going to kill each other.

We do not deny that the people had rejected Morsi. I shared this opinion with them; however, there are democratic mechanisms through which to express this rejection.

There is a difference between political and judicial accountability. This does not mean that every time we get a failure of a president we call on the army to come in and remove him.

The army is the guardian of the people, so what is wrong with that?

The army’s job is to protect us from foreign enemies, not from each other.

What could the people do when faced with the Brotherhood’s militias?

What militias?

The ones that killed and tortured demonstrators in front of the presidential palace?

What happened at the presidential palace was a crime, though it has nothing to do with militias.

Don’t you think what happened at the presidential palace could have been repeated on June 30 if the army had not stepped in?

Let me be clear that what happened in front of the presidential palace is a crime that is punishable by law. This does not, however, justify what transpired after that. The army’s job is to protect the people from foreign enemies, period.

Do you want the army to let the people quarrel internally with the ruling power and not intervene to stop the bloodshed?

We were not quarrel internally and there was no fitna [strife].

Wasn’t the country on the road to perdition at the hands of the Brotherhood?

Not at all. Morsi was simply a failed president and he had to go. However he should have gone via the ballot box, which is where I differ with others from the National Salvation Front (NSF) who wished to bring down Morsi through a coup. This become apparent through the NSF’s statement in anticipation of the first statement from the army. Whoever prefers this does not love the Egyptian army, which is a national institution of which we are proud and the most protective of. However, its only role is to defend the country from any foreign enemies.

The internal political dispute should have been dealt with through peaceful means.

Why didn’t you oppose the army’s involvement in the January 25th revolution when it stood with the people?

The Egyptian army did not side with the people or with Mubarak on January 25th, nor did it fire a single bullet. The police were firing at us and at the youth. The army hit the streets after the police collapsed, and it took a neutral position. It did not carry out a coup against Mubarak – even though he was a corrupt president over the course of 30 years – in the way it did with Morsi for being a failure of a president.

What does the referendum on the constitution represent for you?

A constitutional text that was very poorly amended.

Doesn’t the large turnout of Egyptians casting their votes on the referendum signify that the popular will backs the road map?

Who are the Egyptians that turned out?

More than 20 million Egyptian citizens.

You mean the Egyptians who voted on the constitution; do you want to ask whether or not this is a constitution? We'll say it's a constitution.

Don’t you think that the broad popular turnout represents the Egyptian will to support this roadmap and discredits the theory of a coup?

Everything you are saying is incorrect. It [the road map] was not submitted to the people in order for them to vote on it. What was submitted to them was an amendment to the constitution, which is a respectable procedure. However, what we demanded from the current authorities in order to gain some sort of legitimacy was for the people to approve the road map via a referendum, but the authorities refused.

If the people were opposed to the road map, wouldn’t they go out in the streets and object like they did against Morsi?

Not necessarily.

Some think you are not running for president because you know your popularity in the street has declined.

If I ran this time, I would receive many more votes than I received last time.

But the climate of these elections is different.

There have not been any changes in the Egyptian street or in reality. Egyptians rejected the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood; they will not reject Islamists. They will accept the idea of an Islamist candidate; we cannot mix between Islam, religion and the Brotherhood, since the latter is a political faction. Egyptians rejected them because of their political practices; they did not reject them from the beginning as shown by the five elections in which they gave their votes to the Muslim Brotherhood with their full desire and awareness and without having drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid.

Were the people deceived by the phrase: “Those who know God”?

Do not say deceived. They rejected them after they tried them out and found them to be weak and their performance poor. I was certain that if the Muslim Brotherhood was left to continue in its weak performance, it would not have won the next elections.

Don’t you think what we’re suffering from as a people and a state is because of the Brotherhood’s violence?

No, and it would have been better to wait out the four years.

And for the country to collapse?

This rhetoric is false and is only propagated by the media. The Egyptian people are not oblivious and their army would not stand by while their land was squandered and sold.

Aren’t you bothered by the number of terrorists let into Sinai by the Brotherhood?

There has been terrorism in Sinai since the days of Mubarak; under the Military Council; and during Morsi’s presidency; and it still exists there now under the current regime. Terrorism entered into the Sinai because of the army’s involvement in political life!

And the terrorists that were released by Morsi?

Most of those who were pardoned…Field Marshal Tantawi was the one who released them, while Morsi released some of them. However, they were not terrorists, but rather a group whose sentences had ended and they were wrongly being detained. They were released.

How do you respond to accusations that you are a Muslim Brother by inclination and belief and just left the organization because of conflicts and issues around positions in the Guidance Bureau?

It is not commendable to pretend to be heroes or brave now and to speak about and defame the Muslim Brotherhood. I was the strongest of those who faced them and their errors during their time in power.

What do you say about the acts of violence carried out by them?

Whoever commits violence must be arrested.

Why do you regard those who are arrested for acts of violence as [political] detainees and not as accused?

That is not true. What is happening now is that people who did not commit acts of violence are being arrested. Did Ahmed Maher [head of the youth grassroots movement April 6] commit any violence? What about [secular activist] Alaa Abd El-Fattah, [head of the Islamist party El Wasat] Abu al-Ala Madi or [former speaker of parliament] Saad El-Katatni? They are being held captive to settle political scores.

They are all being held on charges and in most of their cases voice recordings have emerged that condemn them…what do you think about that?

Which cases are you referring to?

How do you think the trial of the deposed President Mohammed Morsi is being handled?

I am not in a position to evaluate Morsi’s trial.

Do you think that he is not being given his right to a fair trial?

Morsi himself proclaims that he is not permitted visits from his family. Regardless of how the trial is being handled -- which is evaluated by the judiciary itself – we reject the fact that as an accused detainee he is being subjected to abuse, no matter who he is.

Witnesses say that Morsi is being treated well, but he does not want this. For example, the prison food.

Have you tried prison food? Everyone who speaks about prison, including those in power, I challenge them to put up with one week in prison.

How can you consider Morsi's being held at the naval base in Alexandria to be a sort of kidnapping, when EU Foreign Affairs Representative Catherine Ashton was able to visit him where he was being held?

Was Morsi the one who asked Ashton to visit him?

He is being detained appropriately in a way that is not degrading to him…and Ashton visited him where he is being detained.

Did I say he was being degraded? Are you making up things I haven’t said?

Doesn’t the entrance of Hamdeen Sabahi into the presidential race indicate that there is equal opportunity, contrary to what you have said?

Although Hamdeen Sabahi has decided to run, I do not feel that the presidential elections are following a sound democratic course. Here is a question: Does the propaganda for Sisi allow any candidate, whoever they may be, to enter into the competition with him?

Why don’t you run and get all the supporting votes that in your opinion are being repressed?

The ballot boxes have been prepared ahead of time!

Do you think the presidential elections and the ballot box will be rigged?

I did not say that the ballot would be rigged.

Do you deny that there exists a real, popular will for Field Marshal Sisi to run?

This popular will does exist…but we must know who manufactured it, who told them Sisi’s name and if they knew of him before.

The people are the ones who sought his help to do away with the Brotherhood’s rule.

The media propagated this to the people and told them: Sisi is the savior who rid us of terrorism.

Why don’t you bet on the awareness of the Egyptian people, who are capable of choosing and making their own choices?

I cannot “bet on” the awareness of the Egyptian people amid the power of businessmen and their control over the media, be it state or private media.

What about the Islamist current and the Muslim Brotherhood…can’t they help you win the presidency?

I do not want the support of the religious current and have been opposed to its involvement in the political process since 2007. As for the Brotherhood, they and the Salafis were my biggest obstacle in the previous elections, and now it’s worse. This is clear from the declarations made by their leaders, since the Brotherhood could vote for Sami Anan or Hamdeen Sabahi, but they cannot vote for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. I base this on my own understanding of them and not on any information I have from them.

How do you respond to the accusation that you refused to run for the sake of Sami Anan, the Brotherhood candidate?

I have not seen Sami Anan nor have I met with him, neither before nor after the January 25 revolution. I have never met him. I reject Sami Anan’s candidacy just as I reject Sisi leaving the army.

You always criticize the way Brotherhood violence is dealt with; how can the state deal with such events?

The difference between normal citizens and the police is that the latter must be trained to deal with acts of violence and unrest. An officer is entitled to defend himself, and the law is against whoever tries to deal with him.

There is a difference between a police officer who shoots someone in the foot for inciting unrest and throwing Molotov cocktails and a police officer who aims for his head or heart in order to kill him. There is a difference between security institutions trained to face violence by stopping its perpetrators without killing them, which is how it happens all over the world.

What do you feel about the acts of terror and the assassinations sweeping the country?

They must all be confronted by a professional police apparatus.

And what about the assassination of policemen themselves?

It is wrong and a crime…No one applauds terrorism or assassinations against policemen.

Aren’t these assassinations and explosions sufficient justification to classify the group as a terrorist organization?

I have nothing to do with the group. Go and ask them.

What do you think of the comment made by the wife of a Brotherhood leader on the bombing of the airplane in the Sinai, which provoked not only the families of those killed, but all Egyptians?

In a surprising response from Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, he said: “You’re talking like the Kharijites."

I interrupted him with my laughter in order to salvage the situation: How can you compare me to the Kharijites? That makes me mad.

He began to tone down the way he was speaking at this point and said: I’m comparing you to the Kharijites in that they cursed whoever kills a flea when they were the ones who killed Hassan ibn Ali. You are talking about a crazy woman who said something on Facebook. You did not come and carry out a discussion with a leader of the Brotherhood. I left the group in 2009 because of mistaken ideas help by its members, however I am proud of my association with Islamist thought and civilization and I fully stand by it.

Aren’t some of the ideas you say you rejected the sort of extremism that has brought us to the sort of violent acts happening today?

None of them were extremist ideas. This was never a point of discussion between me and anyone. My differences with them had to do with my rejection of the idea that the group should become a political party, as my vision was that its role should be preaching and education. They insisted on turning it a party, however.

In your view, what is the solution to patch things up and avoid violence and terrorism?

The solution is that the media oppression and the hatred it transmits among Egyptians must end. Likewise, the security oppression must stop and the freedoms and human rights that have been violated must be restored. Whoever uses violence must be held accountable in order for the country to rise up again.

The idea of reconciliation has been proposed by numerous figures, but it has not yet happened.

Reconciliation was one of the points in the roadmap that was not carried out and it will never be if the oppression and animosity continue as they are. For this, all Egyptians are paying the price.

Why have you not tried to make an effort to reach out to all sides in order to reach some sort of reconciliation?

I did do this; however, I was met with intransigence from both sides of the conflict.

The Strong Egypt Party has recently been experiencing a great number of defections within its ranks.

There have not been any defections; some of its members have left since some of them are aligned with the Brotherhood and others seek to antagonize the NSF. It is the party’s principle to reject polarization.

Aboul Fotouh drives a wedge into MB

This is the highest level defection we've seen so far, and is representative of 1) how divisive the decision to field a presidential candidate was for the wider MB leadership; 2) how the top leadership around Khairat al-Shater is failing to impose strict obedience in the group. Hassan Beshbashy, a top FJP member, told AMAY about the defection from Morsi:

Beshbasy also called on members of the Brotherhood to back Abouel Fotouh, who he said was the "strong honest and consensus candidate backed by all the national and Islamic movements."

He told Al-Masry Al-Youm that many of the Brotherhood senior leaders held similar positions, including the Brotherhood leader Mostafa Komshaish and he expected many of them to officially announce their support of Abouel Fotouh in the coming few days.

. . .

There is talk, Beshbasy said, of launching a movment of Brotherhood leaders supporting Abouel Fotouh, under the slogan 'Brotherhood Coalition Backing Abouel Fotouh.’

The group has said members are not bound to vote for the group’s official candidate, Morsy, but have the freedom to choose which the candidate they see best fit.

"We have all the respect and appreciation for Mohamed Morsy, the FJP candidate," Beshbashy said.

He justified not backing Morsy, saying, "Morsy's candidacy represents a political suicide and a threat to the national security because the Brotherhood's acquisition of the presidency, Parliament and Cabinet would lead to the demolishing of the Islamic project with the first factious protest.”

He said some of the recent hard-line rhetoric from group and party leaders would not benefit the Muslim Brotherhood or the country. He said talk such as that of returning to the caliphate system was dangerous and might lead to disagreements with other countries.

That's the most important thing about Aboul Fotouh's candidacy: he is bringing to the fore the contradictions inside the MB, forcing a debate with the hardliner leadership controlled by Shater and his allies, and eroding a tradition of strict obedience that no longer makes sense when the movement is not banned or persecuted.

Why the Muslim Brothers will brook no dissent

The news that the leading Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is being expelled from the movement should come as no surprise. It's true that in doing so, the MB is losing a widely respected figure that many see as the more moderate, acceptable face of the Brotherhood. Aboul Fotouh frequently appears on television, and has influence as the head of the Arab Medical Union, a professional syndicate. He is also a leadership figure for the vocal minority of young Muslim Brothers and their sympathizers who want to see the group change with the times. But is he becoming a major thorn in the Brotherhood's side for his desire to run for the presidency.

This is not primarily because the MB feels it is too early to field a presidential candidate, even if that's part of the picture. It is first and foremost about electoral strategy and a long-term plan to increase its political influence.

Right now, the MB is fielding candidates for about 30-50% of seats in the forthcoming parliamentary elections and none in the presidential one. That may look like restraint, but it's not: it's a very clever strategy that will extend their influence beyond what it might be if they fielded more candidates (assuming they're even able to.)

By not running for more seats in parliament, the Brothers appear to exercising restraint but in effect are positioning themselves as power brokers in the races in which they don't run. Let's assume the next elections will be under the same constituency-based system as before. In many constituencies, there will be a block of voters who would have voted for the MB which will become available as a voting block to give to another party's candidate. The negotiations to grab that voting bloc will make the Brotherhood a key influence in local politics (and indirectly in parliament), because they probably represent the single largest such bloc even if they can only get a maximum of 15-30% (assuming their voters are loyal and will follow local leadership's orders to vote for another party's candidate). So say you're the Wafd's or Social Democratic Party's candidate in the Cairo district of Sayyeda Zeinab: can you really afford not to get the Brotherhood on your side, and thus owe them a political debt that they will be able to cash in at a later point (or to trade during the elections for support elsewhere?)

The same principle applies for the presidency. The Brotherhood probably does not stand much of a chance if it fields a candidate — and I think neither does Aboul Fotouh. But if he runs, he will surely get at least some of the MB vote. If he doesn't run, there will be more MB votes to offer presidential candidates such as Amr Moussa, Ayman Nour or Mohamed ElBaradei (if he decides to run.) The MB will be in the position to be a kingmaker, not because it is so strong, but because it is the largest and most disciplined part of a very fragmented political system. I don't think the basic level of support for the MB is much more than 20%, in part because they are not likely to add many more voters among the majority of the public that never voted (since they had the most motivated people under the old regime). But that fifth of the electorate consists of a big swing vote that they will use to further legitimize their new legal status in partisan politics and widen their influence over policy. The presidency is particularly open to such electoral calculations, and indeed we saw Ayman Nour court the MB in the 2005 race.

What Aboul Fotouh's candidacy does is not only weaken this strategy. In a highly disciplined movement, expelling him was the only choice possible lest others contest the leadership strategic choices and further erode their influence. And it also opens the most public schism in years at a time of real division about the orientation of the leadership.