By AYA BATRAWY, Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — It was a simple gesture: About a decade ago, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, took a pen as a present to Egypt's most famous novelist and Nobel laureate on his 92nd birthday.
It was also a gesture of defiance. The Brotherhood shunned the late novelist Naguib Mahfouz, whose secular writings were considered blasphemous by hard-liners. The move fueled Abolfotoh's reputation as a moderate reformer in a fundamentalist group that opponents fear aims to create religious rule in Egypt.
Now Abolfotoh, who was thrown out of the Brotherhood last year, is banking on that reputation as he runs to become Egypt's president. He is angling to be one of the few candidates with crossover appeal for both religious conservatives and liberals.
His hope is that there is a middle ground in a deeply divided race. On one side are Islamists, particularly Khairat el-Shater, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, who can draw from the large religious vote. On the other are figures from the former regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, symbolized by former intelligence chief and vice president Omar Suleiman. They are looking for support from Egyptians worried over rising Islamist power.
Abolfotoh's chances in the May 23-24 election will hinge on whether he is Islamist enough to pull in part of the religious vote while moderate enough to attract liberals who distrust the Brotherhood but want an alternative to Suleiman. He may benefit from divisions among Islamists, as el-Shater faces a strong challenge from an ultraconservative lawyer-turned-preacher, Hazem Abu Ismail.
Addressing a crowd on the campaign trail this month in the north Cairo district of Birket el-Hagg, Abolfotoh hit most heavily on the themes dear to liberals and revolutionaries — an end to Mubarak-era corruption, creation of a society where presidents and politicians are accountable before the law, reform of the economy, education, health and the police.
At the same time, the 60-year-old Abolfotoh, who sports a conservative's close-cropped beard and a bruise on his forehead from prayer, dotted the speech with Quranic verses and stories of the Prophet Muhammad.
"God loves a Muslim who does work with skill," he said to back his calls for good governance. He added a criticism of hard-liners:
"We must stop presenting Islam and the great Shariah law as if it's foolishness and craziness and extremism. Shariah has never been anything but goodness, mercy, justice and rationality," he said. "Islam knows to administer with skill."
Abolfotoh's rise through the Brotherhood and his ultimate expulsion are key to his bid.
Many fear the Brotherhood will end up with too much power if it wins the presidency. Liberals believe it could bring the same authoritarianism as Mubarak, only now with an Islamist bent. The Brotherhood showed its electoral power by winning nearly half of parliament late last year, making it by far the largest bloc. It and other Islamists sidelined moderates and liberals by creating an Islamist-dominated assembly to write a new constitution.
Abolfotoh, a pediatrician who also holds a law degree, served for years on the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau, its highest executive body. He and el-Shater — the group's longtime deputy leader — were both imprisoned multiple times in crackdowns on the banned group, including a 5-year stint for Abolfotoh under Mubarak.
But he was hardly an institutional man. There was frequent friction with the conservative leadership.
Several years ago, he irked his fellow Brothers by saying he would rather have a good Christian than a bad Muslim as president — contradicting the movement's line that majority Muslim Egypt should not be ruled by a Christian.
He also publicly slammed the Brotherhood for not being transparent about its financing. The Brotherhood spent most of its 90 years outlawed and operating in semi-secrecy, building a network of charitable operations and businesses.
When the protests against Mubarak erupted on Jan. 25, 2011, Abolfotoh immediately showed his support, unlike the Brotherhood leadership, which hesitated for days. His stance elated many young Brothers who joined protests even before their leaders condoned it.