This past May, Abdel-Moneim Abou El Fotouh announced that he would run for president of Egypt. The news sent ripples through the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and most formidable opposition movement in Egypt. Abou El Fotouh, who is sixty years old and resembles a friendly bear, is the author of many books, including A Witness to the History of Egypt’s Islamic Movement. He is also secretary general of the Arab Medical Union and was until December 2009 a member of the Brotherhood’s executive council. His outspoken progressivism has made him a polarizing figure; in June, as this issue went to press, he was expelled from the Brotherhood for his independent presidential candidacy.
Bidoun: What did you make of Ayatollah Khamenei supporting the Egyptian revolution, calling it an extension of the Islamic revolution in Iran?
Abdel-Moneim Abou El Fotouh: We refuse this. After the revolution, when our Sheikh Qaradawi came back to Egypt for the first time in many years, people said it was like Khomeini coming back to Iran. He said “No, I am not like Khomeini.” There is a lot of Ikhwenophobia these days — fear of another Iranian system. People forget that the Muslim Brotherhood is a Sunni organization. I respect our brother Shia, but the most dangerous thing is velayat faqih [the rule of the jurist]. How can I give my mind over to another human like me? As if one man can know everything!
B: And what of Mubarak … ?
AMAF: Mubarak was a scaremonger. He made the West afraid of Islam. When you reduce Egypt to the Brotherhood — it’s as if you are my daughter and I have ten daughters but I introduce you as my only daughter. Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood is a part of Egypt, but it is a minor part. From the start of this revolution, the Brotherhood was among the people.
B: But they refused to take part…
AMAF: It’s true that on January 25 the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood refused to take part in the demonstrations. But the young people refused to listen to the leadership. They took part. And when the revolution went on, the Brotherhood participated.
B: To what extent did they play a role in what happened?
AMAF: They were the minority, not more than five percent. One of the surprising things about this revolution is that you can’t say there was a leader. This is a revolution of the Egyptians. All of this, without chaos and destruction.
B: What about the battle of the camels and the martyrs and …
AMAF: That was the baltagiya. The thugs. And then the people formed public committees and policed themselves. We live in a safe society. In Tahrir, you had communists, Copts, independents — all of them were in the square every day and night.
B: Did you go to Tahrir?
AMAF: Many times a day. My office, as you see, is down the street. The worst thing Mubarak did was ruin the wigdan of the Egyptian people… their hearts and conscience. In the square, we got it back again.
B: What changed for you with the revolution?
AMAF: We grew more encouraged. We always thought this young generation was “soft”… that they only watched video clips and so on. They astonished us.
B: Tell me about timing. Did you see signs of this coming?
AMAF: If you study revolutions, the first thing you learn is that you can’t predict the timing. Since last spring, though, I felt there was much more oppression and corruption than even we as Egyptians had come to be used to.
B: What do you see happening in elections?
AMAF: I don’t think the Brotherhood will take more than twenty percent of the vote.
B: Are you worried about counter-revolutionary forces?
AMAF: Yes! This is why we are still in Tahrir…
B: And the role of the US?
AMAF: I hope the American regime understands that democracy in our region is the only way they could protect themselves from extremism. I just hope they do not follow the Zionist media that says we — as in, the Islamics — are going to grab power. I also hope they do not interfere in the democratic process with money, like they did in the last elections.
B: Do you believe everything that was said about religious cooperation that took place in the revolution?
AMAF: Yes! One week before, if a Copt and Muslim met in the street, they would not necessarily shake hands. In the square, we were all one. Things changed. There was a clear before and after.
B: There’s a lot of talk about a split in the Brotherhood now that you’ve announced your candidacy for the presidency as an independent.
AMAF: The Muslim Brotherhood is confused. I have long wanted to separate the Brotherhood and its dawa activities from politics. The Brotherhood established the Freedom and Justice Party, and this is good. But it hasn’t gone far enough. They should officially make the Brotherhood an association; the party should be separate.
B: What is preventing them from doing so?
AMAF: Because some our colleagues in the leadership are afraid. They are worried about the future. They still do not trust what has happened in Egypt.
B: Why didn’t the Brotherhood take part in last week’s protests?
AMAF: This was a very bad decision. We should let the members behave according to their mind.
B: What do you think will happen to the Mubaraks?
AMAF: The trials will continue. Something may occur so that there is no big punishment. I do not expect a big punishment.
B: What’s your next goal?
AMAF: My aim for the next twenty years is to build Egypt. People come from Europe, the US, everywhere… to ask me about the Palestinian problem. But my priority is Egypt. Egypt can play a very good role in solving many problems in our region, but only if we solve our own problem, first.
B: What is the biggest challenge ahead?
AMAF: The main threat in our region is extremists. If we do not build a tolerant stream, extremism will destroy our countries.
B: Do you worry about Salafis?
AMAF: I went to a Salafist conference last week in Mansoura. They are organizing and forming political parties, two so far: the Nour party and the Al Fadila party. And this is good. These groups should be engaged in society — this is the way to make them moderate. I do not worry, though. I think every Egyptian has his right to express himself, even when he has extremist eyes. And the Islam of Egypt is mostly tolerant.
B: Do you think Saudi Arabia is involved in encouraging extremism?
AMAF: [Nods emphatically] But the Salfism in Egypt is more tolerant than the Salafism in Saudi Arabia. It is the nature of Egyptians to be tolerant. You see this in the mainstream of the Muslim Brotherhood…
B: A lot is said about the Brotherhood’s positions vis-a-vis Copts and women.
AMAF: I have no problems with Copts or women. This is precisely my problem with the Muslim Brotherhood! Three years ago I said I am okay with a Copt or a woman as president — and you know what controversy this created.
B: Is there any turning back?
AMAF: There is no way for Egypt besides being a democratic state. When I visit the south or north, everywhere, and I see farmers, workers, professors — all of them agree that we can’t go back. No one wants to be part of a backward system.