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Francois Burgat and Bjorn Olav Utvik

Keeping Abul Fotouh behind bars puts Egypt in chains

Fotouh's arrest in February came after he called to boycott the presidential election [AFP]

Date of publication: 10 July, 2018

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Comment: Five years after a military coup d'etat, the achievements of Egypt's 2011 revolution have been liquidated, and no dissenting voices are allowed, write Francois Burgat and Bjorn Olav Utvik.
On Wednesday 14 February 2018, Dr Abdel Monim Abul Fotouh, former head of the Arab Medical Union and a candidate in the 2012 presidential election, was arrested along with five deputy leaders of the Strong Egypt Party, which he had founded following his break with the Muslim Brotherhood.

On 20 June, the Egyptian prosecutor, after freezing all Abul Fotouh's assets extended his remand in custody.

He is accused of having direct links with the Muslim Brotherhood and, by denouncing "the lack of credibility" of the presidential election then in preparation (March 2018) and calling for a boycott, of having "propagated false news capable of damaging the reputation of the state", in the current vocabulary of Egypt's repressive apparatus.

Since then, the former head of the Arab Medical Union's health has seriously deteriorated. The conditions of his imprisonment are especially harsh for a man going on 70. He is kept in solitary confinement, deprived of newspapers, the exercise yard and even Friday prayer meetings.

Given the indulgent attitude towards the Egyptian regime that prevails in the international community, his family's attempts to alert public opinion abroad have been mostly unsuccessful.

The case of Dr Abul Fotouh should suffice to show that the "war on terrorism" - which the regime pretends to be waging - claims victims far beyond the Islamic State (IS) or al-Qaeda. And that however counterproductive a "war" designed solely to prop up a regime with a frail political base, it benefits from the benevolent passivity of the international community, first and foremost that of the USA and France.

A new Islamist generation

Born in Cairo on 13 October 1951, Fotouh was one of the most prominent leaders of the Islamist student movement in the mid-70s. When President Anwar el-Sadat decided to let universities recruit students from the "lower" classes, the newcomers' traditional piety came into conflict with the more secular intellectualism of the academic world.

This was the context in which certain students, in an apolitical "Salafist" spirit, began forming Islamic circles (gamaate islamiya), organising devotional activities such as prayer meetings and Quran readings.

Early in the 70s, Fotouh was a medical student and one of the prime movers of that budding mobilisation.

Abul Fotouh was to play a leading role in the gradual internalisation by the Brotherhood of the imperatives of democracy and pluralism

In 1973 he became head of the gamaa at the Qasr Aini College of Medicine and worked with Essam al-Eryan and Ibrahim el-Zafarany among others to give the movement a national dimension.

During this period he was gradually inspired - and "politicised" - by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members Sadat - counting on their support - was liberating from the prisons where they had been locked away by Nasser.

Before they set out to conquer the trade unions, the new generation of Islamists tackled the left-wing student unions, and by the end of the 70s they had taken these over in eight colleges out of 12.

Presidential candidate Abul Fotouh arrives at a polling station to vote in Cairo on May 23, 2012 [AFP]

At the time, Fotouh was president of the students' union at Cairo University and became popular in 1975 by challenging President Sadat, accusing him in a memorable TV debate, of having prevented Sheikh Mohamed al-Ghazali from speaking in public.


Within the Islamist movement, this stand in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood's political reformism fuelled a quarrel which is still relevant today. It was a split between the "jihadists" who favour armed, elitist action and the seizure of power "at the top" and those who also want to take control of the state, but preferred grassroots activism and long-term reform.

Demands for democracy and pluralism

Abul Fotouh, the leader of the reformist tendency, declared his sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood and joined it officially in 1979. Bringing with him a majority of the proponents of reform, he gave the movement - decimated by Nasser's repression- a fresh start.

Fotouh rose quickly through the ranks and in 1967 was appointed to a seat on the Maktab al-irshad (Guidance office). Like many of his generation, he was a union activist, on the national level at first, as General Secretary of the Egyptian Doctors' Union; and then on the pan-Arab level, becoming General Secretary of the Arab Medical Union.

Fotouh's commitments - moderate though they were - and his visibility, made him a target of persecution by Hosni Mubarak's regime

Little by little, following a path which anticipated in many ways the evolution of the Brotherhood itself and of a number of its offshoot organisations (such as Rached Ghannouchi's Ennahdha in Tunisia), he eschewed every form of literalism in his understanding of religious commitment, contextualising the demands of religious doctrine so as to free them from fundamentalist obedience.

By so doing, he placed a greater emphasis on the "objectives" (maqasid) of his faith than on the letter of the normative expressions of the dogma, as adopted by the societies of times past. Thus Abul Fotouh was to play a leading pioneer role in the gradual internalisation by the Brotherhood, in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, of the imperatives of democracy and pluralism.

He advocated building relationships with other parties more or less sympathetic with the Islamist current, and especially with Adel Hussein's Labour Party and the Liberal Party with which the Muslim Brotherhood, forbidden from running its own candidates, concluded an alliance in the 1987 parliamentary elections.

Read more: Egypt upholds life sentence against Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie

Fotouh's commitments - moderate though they were - and his visibility, made him a target of persecution by Hosni Mubarak's regime which jailed him for the first time in 1981.

In 2000, after another five years in jail, his openness to other political movements caused new conflicts, no longer with the jihadi or Salafist currents within the Brotherhood, but with the conservative wing which still ruled it.

Campaign posters of Egyptian presidential candidates Mohammed Morsi (top) and Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh
in Cairo on May 18, 2012. [AFP]

In 2007, he explicitly refused to go along with plans for the creation of a new party which the group had just adopted without consulting the rest of the leadership. He criticised both the undemocratic form of the decision and the content of a programme which stated in particular that "only a Muslim can be president" and which also suggested that parliamentary legislation should be supervised by a council of ulemas.

In 2009, as a logical consequence of his critical stance, he was not re-elected to the guidance office.

Separating religion from politics

After the 2010 resignation of the Brotherhood's general guide, Mohamed Mahdi Akef and his replacement by the very conservative Mohamed Badie, Abul Fotouh became more openly dissident.

That same year he advocated the separation of the political and religious agendas of the Brotherhood's membership. While he continued to favour its mobilisation in support of major national and international causes, he declared that individual members should be free to join the party of their choice, thereby confining de facto their missionary activity to the dawah (the proselytizing or preaching of Islam). 

In 2011, he was among those who, unlike the historic leaders of the Brotherhood who dragged their heels at first, welcomed with open arms the uprising launched by young people against the Mubarak regime. He was thus one of the first public figures to join the demonstrators in Tahrir Square.

The arrest and persistent harsh treatment inflicted on Dr Fotouh demonstrate the regime's refusal to allow any independent expression

In June 2011, contrary to the Brotherhood's initial decision not to present a candidate, he decided to run in the first presidential election, which sealed his eviction from movement.

For a time, he was very well placed in the polls, ahead of the Nasserite Hamdin Sabahi and on a par with the military candidate Ahmed Shafiq.

He managed to obtain the support of people whose views diverged from his own, such as the internet activist Wael Ghonim, who saw him as a compromise between the representatives of the old regime and the Islamists, as well as the Salafist Nader Nakkar - the young spokesperson for the far right Islamist al-Nour Party - in search of allies in its rivalry with the Brotherhood.

He debated very effectively with Amr Moussa, former foreign minister and secretary-general of the Arab League, but both lost to the Brotherhood's official candidate, Mohamed Morsi, chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party created by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi was a last-minute replacement for Khairat el-Shater whose candidacy was rejected by the electoral commission. Abul Fotouh came in fourth, but did garner 17 percent of the vote. In 2012 he maintained the mobilisation of his campaign's supporters by creating his own party, Hizb misr alqawiya, the Party for a Strong Egypt.

Only one solution: Boycott

His goal was to bring together the Islamists and the secular opposition forces around a programme advocating economic modernisation and social integration. Soon his party joined in the protests against the Morsi presidency. He took part in the street demonstrations of 30 June 2013 which was to legitimise the military coup (which he nonetheless condemned) proclaiming his determination to participate in the restoration of the democratic process.

As it gradually became clear that Sisi was taking the country in a direction completely different from the promised strengthening of democracy, Abul Fotouh, openly sided with the opposition.

Read more: Egypt FA blames Muslim Brotherhood for poor World Cup performance, Mo Salah crisis

Yet his Party for a Strong Egypt did not join the front "for the defence of legitimacy" led by the Brotherhood which demanded the return of President Morsi and the abrogation of the reforms imposed by the army.

With each new electoral event - the 2014 constitutional referendum, the presidential elections of 2014 and 2018 or the 2015 legislative ballot - his party felt that failing any possibility of political expression or activity, the only response was a boycott.

In June 2018, the arrest and persistent harsh treatment inflicted on Dr Fotouh, one among thousands of other political prisoners, demonstrates the regime's refusal to allow any independent expression, even if the message is one of moderation and reconciliation.

There is a glaring contrast between the sharp reminders of democratic imperatives - perfectly legitimate in themselves - that western powers repeatedly direct at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and their deafening silence regarding the worst excesses of their Egyptian partner.

This illustrates the age-old ethics of the powers that be, which differ when applied to the circle of their "rebellious" challengers, or to their "submissive" clients like the jailer of Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh.

Francois Burgat is a political scientist and senior researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. A former director of the French institute for the Near East, he is the head of the European Research Council (ERC) programme When Authoritarianism Fails in the Arab World.

Follow him on Twitter: @frburgat

Bjorn Olav Utvik is a professor at the Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oslo. 

This article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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