This recent move doesn't mean that these hardline Islamists are changing their ideology. Rather, it is a well-calculated and required tactical step to ultimately give more opportunity to the Islamists to achieve their agenda.
The recent move by some Salafist groups in Egypt to support a 'liberal' Muslim such as Abdelmonem Aboelfotoh for president instead of supporting a more traditional one, such as Mohamed Mursy of the Muslim Brotherhood, was a surprise and unexpected move to many.
It is fair to say that Mr. Aboelfotoh, shown left, has many views that can make him appear to be a non-traditional or possibly liberal Muslim. Among these views are the following:
* Statements that indicate that the stage of Islamic Caliphate has ended and there is no need to bring it back,
* No punishment for a Muslim if he converts to Christianity,
* No problem with a Christian or a woman becoming the president of Egypt,
* Publishing any book, irrespective of its content, must be allowed,
* Sheiia are an acceptable sect in Islam,
* Manufacturing alcohol should be permissible in Egypt,
* Tourism in its current form that allows women to dress as they wish is OK,
* People - not Allah - must be the source for authority in the country,
* Asking Arabs to accept the existence of Israel (Although this does not mean that under Abuelfotoh relations with Israel will be good. He is just being realistic as he admitted that he cannot fight Israel as it has nuclear bombs. This is in contrast to some other candidates such as Hamdeen Sabbahi who might drag the country into a war with Israel.)
* Rejecting forcing people to carry out the religious edicts such as the five prayers per day or to wear the hijab.
These views -- if Aboelfotoh is genuine with them -- should make him more aligned with Al-Ghanooshi of Tunisia rather than with the traditional Muslim Brotherhood.
However, some statements of Aboelfotoh are worrying. Aboelfotoh, for example, has been asked recently if he would allow Western banking systems in the country. His answer was that it would not be his job as a president to decide so and would refer such an issue to the religious authorities to decide if it should be allowed or not.
This attitude is dangerous as economic decisions that may affect the future of the country are based on being religiously accepted rather than on being beneficial to the country. Additionally, he has repeatedly said that he does not accept exporting natural gas to Israel. This trend toward emotionally driven and religiously motivated economic decisions can be very harmful to the country.
Irrespective of the above worrying observations, it is still surprising to see Salafist groups in Egypt backing such a 'liberal' Muslim for the presidency instead of backing the presidential candidate of their traditional ally, i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood.
Possible factors behind this Salafist support for a supposedly liberal Muslim include the following:
1-Aboelfotoh is the one who moved toward the Salafists rather than the other way around. In other words, the 'liberal' Abuelfotoh is becoming more 'Salafi' rather than the 'Salafi' are becoming more 'liberal'.
2-This move is part of an apolitical deal between Aboelfotoh and the Salafist groups. Evidence for this case scenario includes the recent declaration by Abdulmeniin Al-Shahat, who is one of the leading Salafist scholars in the country - that some Salafist groups had a meeting with Aboelfotoh and that he promised them he would implement ALL of the Sharia Law -- not only its principles -- and that he will give the government cabinet to the Muslim Brotherhood if he came to power. In this political deal, Aboelfotoh seems to give these promises to the more conservative groups in exchange for their support in the election. If this is the case, Aboelfotoh should no longer be classified as a liberal Muslim.
3-The Salafist groups are trying to improve their image by affiliating with Aboelfotoh who has a very positive public image. Salafist groups have recently suffered a rapid deterioration of their public image, partially because of their very bad performance in the Parliament, and partially because of the lying by a Salfist member, Anwar al-Balkimy (shown left), of the Parliament about his nose operation. Affiliation with Aboelfotoh can be seen by Salafist groups as a required political step toward improving this deteriorating public image.
4-Aboelfotoh, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, is not competing with Salafist groups in raising funds from wealthy Islamic countries. If the president of the country became a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is likely that wealthy Arab donors will give their donations to the MB rather than to the Salafist groups. This possible shift in funding toward another group could be a factor that contributed to the recent decision of Salafist groups to support a liberal individual instead of supporting the presidential candidate of a competing organization.
5-Unlike Khairat Al-Shater, the original presidential candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the new candidate of the MB, Mohamed Mursy, has virtually no charisma or public appeal at all. The Salafist groups could have realized that Mursy, according to several poll results, is likely to fail in the coming election. This can give more opportunity to a liberal person such as Amr Moussa or Ahmed Shafik to lead the country. Pragmatism in this case necessitates that the Salafist groups do not put their money on a failing horse but instead give their full support to Aboelfotoh to guarantee that a pro-Islam president rather an anti-Islamist liberal comes to power. Aboelfotoh is certainly ideologically closer to Salafists than the ant-Islamists liberals.
In brief, the recent support of Salafist Islamic groups in Egypt for a liberal Muslim does not necessarily mean that the Salafists are changing their ideology, but rather a well calculated and required tactical step that can ultimately give more opportunity to the Islamists to achieve their Islamic agenda.
Dr.Tawfik Hamid, is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He was a member of a terrorist Islamic organization JI with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawaherri who became later on the second in command of Al-Qaeda. Hamid recognized the threat of radical Islam and the need for a reformation based upon modern peaceful interpretations of classical Islamic core texts. In his website, Mr. Hamid says, “I am a Muslim by faith … Christian by spirit … a Jew by heart and above all I am a human being.” Dr. Hamid is currently a Senior Fellow and Chair of the study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.