An Islamist who believes that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States were an American conspiracy is the front-runner in Egypt’s presidential race, a new poll shows.
Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, formerly a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, led the field of 13 candidates with 32 percent of the vote in a survey released Monday by the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Mr. Abolfotoh expressed his views on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in an interview last year with Egypt scholar Eric Trager.
Mr. Trager, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, quoted Mr. Abolfotoh as saying:
“It was too big an operation …. They [the United States] didn’t bring this crime before the U.S. justice system until now. Why? Because it’s part of a conspiracy.”
Egyptians will vote Wednesday and Thursday in their first presidential election since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak last year. If none of the candidates wins a majority, the two top vote-getters will compete in a runoff next month.
A ‘liberal Islamist’?
The 61-year-old Mr. Abolfotoh, who left the Brotherhood last year, has been dubbed a “liberal Islamist” by some reporters partly because he said he believes that a Christian should be able to run for president - a view that put him at odds with the Brotherhood’s leadership.
In a recent Egyptian television interview, Mr. Abolfotoh qualified that position. He said that, while parties are free to nominate whomever they want, Egypt “cannot have a president who does not have an Islamist orientation.”
The Washington Institute’s Mr. Trager said that “the notion that Abolfotoh is some kind of progressive is farcical.”
“He is a longtime Muslim Brother, a founder of the Islamist student movements of the 1970s, and somebody who still calls for implementing the Shariah,” he said. “His falling out with the Brotherhood was over differences regarding strategy and internal administration, not ideology.”
Mr. Abolfotoh has been endorsed by al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, a jihadist group the State Department designated as a terrorist organization.
“Given that he was endorsed by a terrorist organization and has called the peace treaty with Israel a national-security threat, it is highly unlikely that Egypt’s foreign-policy will remain friendly to U.S. interests if he’s elected,” Mr. Trager added.
Mr. Abolfotoh’s candidacy has seen several lucky breaks lately.
First was the disqualification last month of hardline preacher Hazem Abu Ismail from the race. The Salafist Nour Party, which had backed Mr. Abu Ismail, later threw its support to Mr. Abolfotoh.
In addition, the disqualification of the initial Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Khairat al-Shater, and his replacement with a less charismatic candidate, Mohammed Mursi, has caused a swing of Muslim Brotherhood support to Mr. Abolfotoh. Mr. Mursi, 60, was favored by only 8 percent of those polled in the May 4-10 Brookings survey of 773 Egyptian voters.
Mr. Abolfotoh’s closest rival in the presidential race appears to be Amr Moussa, a secular former foreign minister and Arab League chief. Mr. Moussa, 76, drew 28 percent support in the survey.
Mr. Moussa has repeatedly said that Egypt cannot afford “an experiment” in Islamist democracy, while Mr. Abolfotoh has blasted Mr. Moussa and another leading candidate, former Air Force commander Ahmed Shafiq, for their ties to the fallen regime. Mr. Shafiq, 70, received 14 percent support in the poll.
Mr. Abolfotoh and Mr. Moussa squared off recently in a four-hour televised debate that featured several sharp exchanges.
At one point, Mr. Abolfotoh called Israel “an enemy” and pressed Mr. Moussa to do the same. Mr. Moussa demurred, saying that Egypt’s next president should “not push it along with slogans towards a confrontation we may not be ready for.”
The winner of the election will have a large effect on the direction of the revolution that toppled Mr. Mubarak. The outcome could have far-reaching consequences in particular for the country’s besieged Christian minority, for Egyptian-Israeli relations and for the role of religion in public life.
Islamists so far have capitalized on the disorganization of liberal parties, winning two-thirds of the vote in the parliamentary elections.
The Brookings poll also shows that 66 percent of Egyptians support making Islamic law the basis of Egyptian law. But, in response to another question, 83 percent of Egyptians said they prefer applying Shariah in “spirit,” adapted to modern times.
Asked to pick a model for Egypt among six Muslim countries - Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Malaysia, Morocco, and Tunisia - 54 percent of those surveyed chose Turkey and 32 percent chose Saudi Arabia.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also emerged as a favorite in the poll, with 63 percent of Egyptians naming him as the non-Egyptian world leader they admire most.
“Abolfotoh has said that he wants to be the Erdogan of Egypt, and I think that U.S. relations with Turkey may be a good example of what we could expect,” noted Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
“Turkey remains an important ally with whom the U.S. cooperates on a variety of shared interests. But on the surface, there is more tension between the two due to Erdogan’s inflammatory populist rhetoric and positions.”