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Aboul Fotouh could be Egypt’s next president because he’s many people’s second choice

The three campaign songs played over and over again in a loop as residents gathered under a large tent for the latest rally. Women were sequestered in a corner because, as one campaign worker explained, “There are Salafists everywhere,” meaning conservative Islamists who wouldn’t allow their candidate to host a gender-mixed crowd.

Campaign workers hurriedly placed large orange signs carrying a photo of presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, wanting to convey the impression that this small agricultural village was more behind the candidate than it was.

Aboul Fotouh is considered a leading contender in next week’s first round of Egypt’s first-ever contested presidential election, matched against the former secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, and 11 other candidates, including one fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood, considered universally to be Egypt’s most powerful political bloc.

But the campaign stop here showed Aboul Fotouh’s weakness – and perhaps his strength.

Just a few yards from where campaign workers were setting up, two friends were debating who should get their votes. They both agreed that Aboul Fotouh was not the person they had had in mind as the next president of Egypt when Egyptians took to Tahrir Square more than a year ago and demanded revolutionary change.

For Mohammed el Morshedi, Aboul Fotouh had come to look better after several other candidates were disqualified from running. “He is not my first choice, but he is the only one who can bring about change,” Morshedi told his friend.

In a nation with so many presidential candidates of so many competing ideologies, Aboul Fotouh has become the election’s compromise candidate, a person who both personifies the nation’s indecisiveness about the way ahead and yet seems to offer an image of decisive action.

He has presented a vague mainstream platform that allows him to be an acceptable choice among various Islamic groups divided over the role of religion in government. He also has support from both those who want revolutionary change and those who fear it.

Still, he remains a charismatic enigma for those voting for him as well as for American officials, who up until the campaign knew him only as a one-time outspoken Muslim Brotherhood figure who once was in the adjoining jail cell of current al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri. Some here worry he will revert to his earlier, more conservative stands once in office. That his views remain so unclear poses more dangers to Egypt, not fewer, they argue.

Indeed, in just the past few days, he has promoted increasingly conservative positions, suggesting he would ban the distilling of alcoholic beverages and walking back on statements that Egyptian Coptic Christians are free to convert to Islam.

“We don’t know who he is,” said Zaid Akl, a political analyst at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic studies. Aboul Fotouh’s candidacy thrives because some “Egyptians want the image of change but not something radical. . . . Ideology is not moving the Egyptian electorate.”

Aboul Fotouh, a physician by trade, was the head of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, which coordinates the public activities of the group’s many local chapters, before he was expelled last year in one of the more ironic twists of the post-Mubarak period. At the time, the Brotherhood had pledged not to run a candidate for the country’s top job, an effort by the group to show that it was not bent on taking over the Egyptian political system. Aboul Fotouh was ejected when he said he planned to run anyway. Months later, the Muslim Brotherhood reneged on its promise and named its own candidate for the presidency.

Since then, Aboul Fotouh has won the endorsements of the most conservative Islamic blocs even as he has called himself a moderate. Analysts say he’s managed to appeal to conservatives and moderates alike by tailoring his approach to each.

For example, Aboul Fotouh dances with a nuanced definition of Sharia, the Islamic moral code, when explaining his position on whether it should be the law of the land. He says that Sharia, in the broadest use of the term, is already in place and that no law under his administration would contradict Islam.

When asked Sunday if he would ban alcohol production, he first dodged the question and then coyly smiled.

He also presents himself as the only candidate who can bring about change to boost Egypt’s besieged economy. Moussa and several of the other candidates with ties to the previous regime represent stagnation, he argues.

“I say vote for me because I call for unity between liberals, Copts and Islamists, and this is a reflection of the January 25 unity,” Aboul Fotouh said during a televised debate with Amr Moussa, referring to the revolution, whose start date is considered Jan. 25, 2011. “We can’t build a country without unity, and this has to be without respect to religion or political position.”

Some supporters acknowledge that they support him not so much because of his campaign pledges, but because they believe his track record shows he’s an outspoken leader. They point to his 30-year career in the Muslim Brotherhood and an infamous debate he had with then President Anwar Sadat when he called Sadat and his supporters “brown nosers” for not allowing an opponent to speak on campus. Those are traits of a leader, supporters say.

Thatwat el Kharabawy, a lawyer and longtime associate of Aboul Fotouh during their time in the Muslim Brotherhood, said he only recently came to support Aboul Fotouh. They have different views on the role of Islam in the state, but “he has a lot of experience in management because he has held a lot of positions. . . . Aboul Fotouh, with his strong character, will be able to lead the country through its problems.”

El Kharabawy, who defected from the Brotherhood years before Aboul Fotouh to help found the Wafd Party, noted that Aboul Fotouh is the only candidate who can successfully reach out to both Christians and various Islamists.

Mohamed el Qassas, a former Muslim Brotherhood member and a founder of the Egyptian Current Party, a youth movement, said the party decided to back Aboul Fotouh because, despite his views, he carries a revolutionary spirit.

"He is an independent candidate, he does not represent any party,” el Qassas said.

On foreign policy, Aboul Fotouh has called for a reassessment of the Camp David accords that led to a peace treaty with Israel, without saying what exactly should be examined. But at Thursday’s presidential debate, he called Israel “the enemy.” He has called for reforms in the hated Interior Ministry, saying police officers need human rights training. He said his government would defend the rights of women and help the huge number of unemployed young people find jobs, though he did not explain how.

In Bilqas, Aboul Fotouh took the microphone at the front of the rally and listed all the Islamist groups that have in the last weeks supported his candidacy – from the conservative Salafists to Islamic youth. During a question and answer period immediately afterward, a resident asked who was funding his campaign, given all those supporters. No one, Aboul Fotouh said.

“I am an independent candidate.”

Special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed.

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