Away from the the presidential race, one can view Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh as a key to understanding the Islamist condition in Egypt after the revolution.
Abul-Fotouh’s departure – or, more likely, his ouster – from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) was inevitable, not only because of his personality and charisma, which had caused him much trouble inside and outside the organisation, but also because of his ideological endeavours, which pose a real threat to the Brotherhood and some of its leaders.
Without elaborating on Abul-Fotouh’s background with the Brotherhood, one can summarise his project in three points: nation before Brotherhood; state before organisation; gain the goal of mandate. These are ideas formulated and developed over the past three decades, and he has documented them honestly in his memoir written by the late Hossam Tamam, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh: Witness to the History of the Islamic Movement 1970-1984.
Abul-Fotouh had parted from the discourse and ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood before he actually resigned. Whenever I met him and asked him why he is still a member, despite his progressive ideas, his answer was always: “I’m not the one who should leave; they [the conservatives] are the ones who must change.” Developing and “revolutionising” the Brotherhood mentality were constants in Abul-Fotouh’s mind – the only lifeline for the Islamist movement and Egypt in general.
Anyone who is familiar with how controversial and intellectual disputes are settled inside the Brotherhood knows how the 'soft' smear campaign against Abul-Fotouh and others like him (Ibrahim El-Zaafarani, Hamed El-Dafrawi, Khaled Dawoud, Haytham Abu Khalil and sometimes Essam El-Erian) over the past decade negatively impacted some of the organisation’s leaders.
While many chose to remain silent, respecting the Brotherhood’s policy of “dislocation” of dissidents, Abul-Fotouh had the courage to break the silence by discussing the shortcomings of the Brotherhood after the revolution.
Abul-Fotouh’s nomination to the presidential race posed the most serious threat to the group in decades, at least according to its leaders, not out of alarm that this would affect the cohesion of the organisational structure of the Brotherhood – especially since there was no Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate at the time – but because this breach undermined the very project of the organisation.
The exit of Abul-Fotouh liberated not the man as such, but a whole design that had been brewing for decades and is attractive to many young Brotherhood members of the who view him as the saviour of Islamist ideology in the wake of the revolution, encouraged by his amity and charisma. Abul-Fotouh’s endeavour undermines the Brotherhood from several directions.
First, it is based on the centrality of the Egyptian nation as an efficacious human and cultural bloc, overcoming the problem of “sectarianisation” and classification based on religion (Christian, Muslim) or gender (male, female). This contradicts the current condition of the MB enterprise which is dedicated to the notion of partisanship and ideological association, since the organisation comes before the nation. While many Brotherhood members blend the concepts of nation and Muslim Brotherhood, action and decisions confirm this distinction – often in reflexive, even spontaneous and unintentional ways.
In other words, the current leaders of the Brotherhood view the organisation as the greater “sect” that should lead the nation, not remain one of its tributaries that can follow the banner of any other project serving the interests of the nation as a whole (promoting the notion of electoral revival is a prime example of this concept).
Accordingly, any ideas or plans that contradict this leadership are cause for concern that must be confronted. The issue of the relationship between the state and the organisation is linked to that issue.
Abul-Fotouh’s background, his political positions and statements reveal three fundamental concepts. First, the central concept of “state” in his political rhetoric, whereby it is a moral entity with a cultural message and clear objectives, not just a physical entity and a source of benefits, influence and domination. Secondly, his strong belief that the individual is the principle resource of this nation, which should not be squandered. Thirdly, the revival of the concept of “nation” that is defined by geography, identity and civilisation.
The notion of “organisation” (a highly centralised body based on mobilisation) seems to dominate Brotherhood rhetoric and actions as seen in the behaviour of its members. This concept is also linked to the previous one, since the Muslim Brotherhood cannot exist and thrive without a strong organisational structure that binds everyone and guarantees cohesion.
If it weren’t for such an organisation, the Brotherhood would not have survived eight decades despite tenacious attempts of exclusion and repression. This, however, came at a high price since it entirely crushed the notion of the “individual” (as a free being who can make his own decisions). Individualism was sacrificed for the collective and was brilliantly demonstrated by the Shatir-Morsi saga, both of whom ran solely to save the organisation (first from the military junta, later from fracture).
This is evident in Morsi’s electoral campaigning where the focus was the project “because it is backed by a strong organisation”, not the candidate who does not seem as important. In the same way the Brotherhood still seems to favour “internationalism” over “statehood” or the traditional definition of the state.
The third element in the Abul-Fotouh proposition demonstrates the development of his religious rhetoric. While he acknowledges his Islamist orientation, he also presents an interpretation and rhetoric that is very compatible with Egypt’s intellectual and political evolution.
For him, religion is a source of values and morals rather than a whip for correction and modification, and his religious conviction is motivated by the principles: “Gain is the goal of the mandate”; and “Wisdom is the goal of believers”.
He also adopts the discourse of making things easier and not embarrassing people, which is an extension of the school of thought of Sheikh Mohamed El-Ghazali and Youssef El-Qaradawi, and the late scholar Sayed Sabeq before them. They all represent the moderate school pioneered by Al-Azhar.
Abul-Fotouh has undertaken many scholastic battles over the past two decades with Brotherhood clerics and scholars (Sheikh Abdel-Sattar Fathallah, Sheikh Abdullah El-Khateeb and others) who do not balance contemporary needs with traditional jurisprudence.
In other words, Abul-Fotouh’s intellectual and ideological endeavour is more progressive than and different from the Brotherhood project, and goes beyond the latter’s limited parameters. If it wasn’t for the suppression and harassment of the Brotherhood over the past three decades, Abul-Fotouh would have become the leader of a new Islamic movement far closer to Turkey’s Erdoganism than the Muslim Brotherhood’s Erbakanism.
The writer is an expert on Islamic movements, Durham University, UK