Mohamed Selim El-Awa

Salma Shukrallah, Monday 2 Apr 2012

Mohamed Selim El-Awa
Presidential candidate Mohamed Selim El-Awa (Photo: Al-Ahram)

A well-known Islamic thinker, writer and prominent commercial litigator, Mohamed Selim El-Awa has been in the limelight for several years garnering attention in particular for his controversial stances on Coptic Egyptians and Shia Muslims.

Born in 1942 in Alexandria, El-Awa received a Bachelor’s degree in law from Alexandria University in 1965.

He obtained a PhD in philosophy from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1972, for a comparative study of systems of punishment in Islamic and English legal systems. He also holds diplomas in public and Islamic law.

El-Awa has published numerous books, as well as papers and newspaper articles.

El-Awa’s own father was among the disciples of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood Hassan El-Banna.

Married to Amani Hassan El-Ashmawy, El-Awa is the father of eight (and stepfather of three). Like his own father, his father-in-law was a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood who fled Egypt after the Nasser regime cracked down on Islamists in the mid-1950s.\

Before the Revolution

El-Awa was the secretary-general of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, one of the founders of the Arab Muslim-Christian Dialogue group in 1994 and remains a member until today.

He also worked as a legal consultant for several governments including those of the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Sudan, Yemen and Pakistan. He was a member of the technical committee for law reformation according to Islamic Sharia in Sudan between 1977 and 1980, and an education consultant for the Gulf region between1979 and 1985.

El-Awa was arrested in 1965 by former president Abdel-Nasser during a clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and charged with being a member a “banned group.”

Although he denied the charges, El-Awa lost his job as deputy prosecutor-general. At that point, he travelled to London to obtain his PhD.

He then worked in the Gulf for a couple of years before returning to Egypt in 1985, where he started teaching at the University of Zagaziq in the Nile Delta. 

He served as legal representative of the centrist-Islamist Wasat Party, often portrayed as a moderate alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and founded by several Brotherhood defectors in 1999.

As legal counsel, he tried to obtain a license for the party during Hosni Mubarak's rule and was denied four times. Wasat was not formally recognised until a week after Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011.

El-Awa also defended a number of Muslim Brothers imprisoned by the Mubarak regime. 

He is often portrayed as a moderate Islamist and a reformist. Although known to be associated with the Brotherhood, he has often differed with them, arguing that they indoctrinate blind obedience.

In the latter years of Mubarak's rule, El-Awa took an equivocal stance on the former president's notorious plan to hand over power to his son Gamal.

El-Awa's statements regarding the Egyptian Orthodox Church damaged his credibility among many people, especially Coptic Egyptians.

In 2010 he alleged that the Coptic Church had kidnapped a Coptic woman to prevent her converting to Islam. El-Awa accused the Church, in an interview to Al-Jazeera at the time, of acting as a “state within a state,” saying that it was unacceptable that the government turned a blind eye to the Church taking the convert hostage. He also claimed that the Church was smuggling and hiding weapons to use them against Muslims.

He also often participated in international Islamic conferences to encourage dialogue amongst Muslims globally and to bridge Sunni-Shia divisions.

Hardcore Islamists in Egypt have strongly criticised El-Awa for his defence of the right of Shia Muslims to practice their version of Islam, accusing him of exaggerating similarities, while downplaying down differences between Sunnis and Shias.

The Revolution and Beyond

El-Awa was often seen in Tahrir Square during the 18-day sit-in that toppled Mubarak and he spoke in support of the protesters.

Following Mubarak's ouster, El-Awa became one of the more ardent supporters of the ruling military council.

He campaigned for a Yes vote in a March 2011 referendum on constitutional amendments put forward by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which laid out the timeline for the transition period.

He repeatedly denounced mass demonstrations which demanded a handover of power to a civilian government ahead of the SCAF-set deadline of July 2012. He also described sit-ins as sacrilegious on the grounds that they interrupted the economic wheel of production.

El-Awa, however, joined mass Islamist demonstrations against the “Selmi document,” proposed by former deputy prime minister Ali El-Selmi in November 2011. The document’s provisions would have shielded the military council from accountability to an elected government and anointed it the guarantor of constitutional legitimacy.

After he declared his intention to run for president in June 2011, El-Awa, seeking to backtrack on his positions with regard to Egypt's Copts, started to deny ever having made inflammatory statements about Christians, and made some reconciliatory gestures.

As the SCAF and state TV accused Coptic protesters of attacking the army during the infamous Maspero massacre of 9 October 2011, El-Awa made statements absolving the Copts of initiating the violence against soldiers, and blamed the whole episode on third party infiltrators.

In November, demonstrators kicked El-Awa out of Tahrir Square after he intervened to convince them to end a sit-in they had started following the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes with security forces which had left over 40 killed and hundreds injured.

Later the same month, El-Awa joined an advisory council responsible for providing policy suggestions to the SCAF for the remainder of the transitional period.

In January of 2012, El-Awa revealed that the much publicised meeting between the SCAF and representatives of political parties and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood,  which took place in the midst of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street crisis, discussed changes in timelines for the transitional period, and not how to end the bloodshed as announced at the time.

At one point, it was rumoured that the SCAF and the leadership of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood might settle on El-Awa as a "consensual presidential candidate," but El-Awa quickly refuted such speculation.

He maintained all along that he was not the candidate of the generals. Simultaneously, he forged ahead in appealing to the rank and file of the Brotherhood and all other Islamist groups, not their leadership, to support his candidacy.

Winning Cards

* Many Islamists, who would not vote for Salafist candidates such as Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, and find Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh too liberal, might find in El-Awa a moderate Islamist open to dialogue and coexistence with other political and social forces. The entry of a Brotherhood candidate into the presidential race however mitigates this.

* El-Awa enjoys a respectable following among sections of the youth of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood.

* His defence of the SCAF since the generals took power and his attacks on the tactics of revolutionaries make him an appealing candidate to social forces who are either opposed to, or have an equivocal stance on, the revolution.

Odds Against

* His staunch support for the ruling military council has alienated many supporters of the revolution, pushing them more towards Islamist Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail or Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.

* Liberal forces and Coptic Egyptians would rally strongly against El-Awa by supporting either a more secular figure or a more liberal Islamist candidate such as Abul-Fotouh against him.

* He does not have the official support of the leadership of the Brotherhood, and has been trailing Islamists Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh and Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail in support among its youth wing in most recent polls. The entry of Khairat El-Shater, the deputy supreme guide of the Brotherhood, into the race in late March 2012 significantly decreases El-Awa's chances in garnering enough Islamist support to win.


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