Cairo In an amazing development I had to split the Organizers’ Forum delegation into two tracks, one political and the other labor, to accommodate the packed schedule of high level meetings. On the political side the confluence of Ahmed Rehab’s experience in Tahrir Square and contacts he made there and the novelty of an open minded delegation of visitors from North America at a time when the parliamentary and other election timelines are starting to consolidate, provided us access to three of the four major candidates for Egypt’s first truly democratic election. Different groups of our delegation met with Mohamed Selim Al-Awa, Amr Moussa, and Abdel Moneim Abul Fatouh. We only missed former UN official and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize Mohamed El Baradei, who was out of the country during our visit. We certainly asked the hard questions, including about the prospects for an Islamic state and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, and got some surprising answers, as the candidates also used the Organizers’ Forum as they sought alternative channels to communicate with the West and push back at the current narrative. I did a double take writing these notes now, when I stopped to scan the on-line headlines in the Times and saw Abul Fotouh’s picture on the front page.
There is no question that the Muslim Brotherhood is still the trump card looking at the election, because they are the most organized and experienced group in the field today. Ironically, their long history of suppression in Egypt has given them both discipline and skills, and their relationships through the Middle East have seemingly opened up unlimited financial resources to them. The election rules are still neither clear nor established and the seven announced candidates met again yesterday to try and lobby the military council on important issues. One thing that is not clear for example is campaign financing, so many efforts are relying on “volunteer” operations, which the campaign manager for Abul Fotouh explained to me in one such presidential candidate meeting I attended. Where the rules are unclear and money is uncertain, a force like the Muslim Brotherhood is even more important, and access to any volunteers that might be available could be critical. The Brotherhood has indicated that it will not field a presidential candidate though is aligned with several strong emerging parties and by some estimates would be unlikely to take less than 25-35% of the seats in the late November elections. In fact they reportedly have “welcomed” the candidacy of prominent Muslim scholar Selim Al-Awa, and expelled Dr. Abul Fotouh when he broke ranks from one of their governing councils to decide to run for office.
Amr Moussa was the first candidate met by the delegation. He was a former foreign minister under Mubarak and then head of the Arab League. He was articulate and charismatic with strongly secular views and smooth as silk. He positions himself firmly as an “opposition” figure to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists, though perhaps the differences are not as stark as he and much of the Western media speculate.
Dr. Fatouh for example in the meeting I attended was crystal clear, as a candidate and as a Muslim scholar, that there is “no such thing as a religious state in the Koran. There is no such thing as an Islamic ruler who interprets or speaks for God.” He was specific in also arguing that the Iranian experience of imans speaking for religion was also not supported by the Koran in his view. He also argued that any group of imans who proport to interpret the text for the people and supersede civil law over the interests of any other religious beliefs, Christian, Jewish, or Islamic, was also barred by the Koran. He repeatedly emphasized that Islam was a “populist” religion protecting individual practices. He personally welcomed Christian and women candidates for the presidency of Egypt for example.
From his views it followed that the people were the base of power at the bottom, and not God at the top.
On the Muslim Brotherhood Dr. Fatouh claimed that he had resigned rather than being expelled over the issue of the Brotherhood’s refusal to register after the revolution because they were not willing to be transparent. He stated that he believed after the revolution it was incumbent of the Muslim Brotherhood to be take a public and open place in Egyptian life, and there unwillingness to do so led to his departure.
On the issues he was strongly behind labor’s demands for a right to organize and freedom of association and endorsed higher minimum wages that were fully enforced. He argued for progressive taxation in our meeting as an path to provide the revenues to deal with economic inequities and support the poor.
The meeting with Selim Al-Awa also produced similar arguments against a religious state and for a secular state in the same vein. Our delegation found themselves extremely impressed with al-Awa. The defining moments though were the sudden interruption of their meeting by six or seven members of the secret service who broke into the meeting arguing that it was an unauthorized “political” meeting. They had gained knowledge of the meeting when the room had been reserved. They tried to stop one of our group from filming the meeting and their interruption and take his memory card. Al-Awa was livid and in Arabic and English upbraided them for not having noted that the Revolution had happened and the old ways of stopping meetings like this were over. The impasse and arguments were ended when finally Al-Awa was able to get the Minister of the Interior on the phone and have him call of the state secret service which is under his ministry.
For our people that episode was perhaps the most vivid flashback to the Mubarak regime and a reminder of a shared experience we now had with the Egyptian people of what the fight was about and why weighing these candidates and the upcoming elections is so critical to the future of the country and the region. The spinning right wing fear about these elections is way off the mark, but the more important fighting inside the Islamic community and the general population over the forces that drive the future as far away from the Mubarak past as possible is key, and unfortunately the copy US relationship with the terrible past continues to leave us out of the loop and out of step when we could – and should – be most supportive and helpful to a struggling, but emerging, democracy.