Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail

Sherif Tarek , Monday 2 Apr 2012

Abu Ismail
Abu Ismail appeared at many conferences of late (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

With a relatively brief history in electoral politics, a respectable career as a lawyer, a reputable status as an influential Islamic preacher, and known for his sharp political rhetoric, Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail has emerged as one of the frontrunners in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential contest.

Born in 1961 in Giza, Abu-Ismail graduated third in his class from the faculty of law at Cairo University in 1982.

Married to Dalia El-Morsi, who worked as a university lecturer of economics and political science before becoming a housewife, Abu-Ismail is the father of three sons.

Before the revolution

Abu-Ismail is the son of late high-profile Islamist figure Salah Abu-Ismail, who was a prominent Al-Azhar scholar, a long-standing member of parliament, and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both at secondary school and at Cairo University, Abu-Ismail was deeply involved in student politics, and has long been a staunch critic of US policy in the region.

He first attracted attention on the political stage in 1995, when, following in his father’s footsteps, he took part in parliamentary elections. He was eliminated, however, in the runoff stage.

Abu-Ismail again tried to secure a parliamentary seat in 2005 parliamentary polls, when he ran for the Muslim Brotherhood (as a nominal independent) against Amal Osman, former minister of social affairs and member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Although Osman ultimately won the vote, the polling was widely believed to have been rigged in her favour.

After failing to make it to the People's Assembly (the lower house of Egypt’s parliament), Abu-Ismail was politically inactive for several years. His weekly sermons at the prominent Assad Bin El-Forat Mosque in Cairo, however, remained politically charged.

Abu-Ismail repeatedly criticised the Mubarak regime's record on human rights. He defended several members of the Muslim Brotherhood – outlawed at the time – who faced military tribunals under the then-ruling regime, such as the deputy supreme guide of the group Khairat El-Shater.

He also advocated against the regime in several high-profile legal cases, including one aimed at halting the export of Nile water to Israel and the legal defence of Suleiman Khater – the Egyptian soldier who killed four Israelis in the Sinai Peninsula in 1986 and was later found dead in prison under suspicious circumstances.

Although harassed by authorities on several occasions, Mubarak’s notorious State Security apparatus never arrested Abu-Ismail. Some observers have attributed this to his father's high-profile status.

The revolution and beyond

Abu-Ismail was an early supporter of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, defying assertions from leading Salafist figures that “any rebellious act against the ruler is forbidden.”

He was one of the few prominent figures to criticise Egypt’s armed forces during the 18-day uprising that culminated in Mubarak’s ouster – at a time when demonstrators were chanting en masse that, "The army and people are one hand."

After the uprising, Abu-Ismail’s criticisms of the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) intensified, and he began accusing the generals of betraying the revolution and its demands. He also denounced the SCAF's military trials of civilians.

Abu-Ismail has attended numerous anti-SCAF protests in the past year, threatening on more than one occasion to organise open-ended sit-ins against military rule.

After announcing his intention to run for the presidency in May of last year, Abu-Ismail has provided fleeting insights into his social and economic views.

Abu-Ismail has reiterated to the public that he is a staunch supporter of the implementation of Islamic Sharia in society. However, he says that the community must be ready to accept such Islamic principles before their execution.

On Copts, Abu-Ismail defends a fairly common position that discrimination against Christians is perceived to be far greater than it actually is, at the same time making general promises to respect the rights of minorities if elected president.

He told TV stations after the revolution, for example, that injustice towards Egyptian Christians has always been blown out of proportion, thanks to the Mubarak regime that prevented dialogue between different communities in the nation.

He compared the situation of Copts in Egypt favourably to that of Muslims in the US saying, "Muslims over there cannot call for prayers out loud. However, Christians in Egypt can ring the bells of the churches."

To allay fears that Islamic law would be unfair to Christians, Abu-Ismail has said, "the Sharia [law] stipulates that every citizen, whether a Muslim or Copt, should be treated in accordance to what his/her beliefs in the confessional arena."

On women's issues, he said he wants to implement the Sharia law, and this means Muslim women must cover their heads.

More generally, Abu-Ismail believes women opt to enter the workforce only because they have to out of economic necessity.

"If a woman graduated from university and did not get married, she would have to take up a decent job, and at this point, the state has to provide her with one."

Still, he insists, "motherhood is an honourable profession and the state must provide for housewives. Women must not be obliged to work outside the home."

Abu-Ismail said he would seek to enforce gender segregation at work places, saying sex mingling at the workplace creates intimacy that Egyptian men do not accept.  But, again, he stressed he would not push for such segregation straightaway.

As president, he says, he would aim to raise Egypt’s gross domestic product (GDP) by focusing on agriculture, and gradually phasing out Egypt’s over-dependence on tourism and Suez Canal revenues.

To assuage fears that he would impose draconian measures that would cripple tourism – an industry that employs some three million Egyptians and generates billions of dollars annually – Abu-Ismail has vowed to merely "streamline" the sector by focusing on health and historical tourism at the expense of beach recreation.

Some of his public statements, however, suggest that he might not be adverse to legislation that could negatively impact the tourism industry, such as banning alcohol, imposing dress codes, and segregating the sexes.

Abu-Ismail also wants to change interest-based banking systems which he believes have led to soaring inflation rates in Egypt, stressing that an Islamic banking system – which shuns the use of interest – would lead to economic prosperity.

Winning cards

* Abu-Ismail enjoys vast support from Islamist currents, especially Salafists, including thousands of rank-and-file members of the powerful ultraconservative Nour Party (although the party has not officially endorsed his candidacy). This gives him a large advantage over other Islamist candidates, such as Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh who is considered by Salafists to be too liberal, as well as Khairat El-Shater, the Brotherhood’s official candidate, who is considered by other Salafists to be less ideologically pure than Abu-Ismail.

* His refined campaign management skills – having managed his father’s four successful electoral campaigns – provides him with a unique advantage and has already become apparent in the flood of Abu-Ismail posters and flyers that have appeared on streets across the country in the run-up to the elections.

* His rejection of Egypt’s subservient relationship with the US, and his stated intention to achieve independence from foreign interference in Egypt’s domestic affairs, resonates with a public clamouring for national pride.

* His fiery speeches against Egypt’s ruling military council over the course of the last year are sure to secure him votes from anti-SCAF quarters.

* He is also one of the youngest candidates in Egypt’s presidential contest.

* Abu-Ismail courts Muslim Brotherhood supporters by equivocating on the question of whether he has been or has never been a member of the powerful group; he has been closely trailing Abdel-Moneim Abul- Fotouh as a choice for president among the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood in recent polls.

Odds against

* His ultraconservative Islamic orientation garners him little support among most liberal and politically centrist Muslim voters, who suspect that, as president, he will curb many freedoms and bring Egypt closer to theocracy.

* Although many Salafists and Islamists support him, Abu-Ismail has not received the official backing of leading Islamist political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party or the Salafist Nour Party.

* He faces a tough battle against other prominent Islamist presidential candidates, such as Mohamed Selim El-Awa, Khairat El-Shater and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, all of whom will be fighting for the votes of rank-and-file Islamists.With a relatively brief history in electoral politics, a respectable career as a lawyer, a reputable status as an influential Islamic preacher, and known for his sharp political rhetoric, Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail has emerged as one of the frontrunners in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential contest.

To view profiles of other major candidates in the 2012 presidential elections, click here

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