Leading Egyptian presidential candidate is Islamic hardliner

  • Article by: DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK , New York Times
  • Updated: April 23, 2012 - 10:10 PM

Muhammad Morsi has declared that his party platform amounts to a distillation of Islam itself, and sharia law guides his candidacy.

Photo: Mohammed Abu Zaid, Associated Press

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CAIRO - He has argued for barring women and non-Muslims from Egypt's presidency on the basis of Islamic law. He has called for a council of Muslim scholars to advise Parliament. He has a track record of inflammatory statements about Israel, including repeatedly calling its citizens "killers and vampires."

Muhammad Morsi also is a leading candidate to become the country's next president.

Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's dominant Islamist group, declared last week that his party platform amounted to a distillation of Islam itself.

"This is the old 'Islam is the solution' platform," he said, recalling the group's traditional slogan in his first TV interview as a candidate. At his first rally, he led supporters in a chant: "The Qur'an is our constitution, and sharia is our guide!"

One month before Egyptians begin voting for their first president after Hosni Mubarak, Morsi's record is escalating a campaign battle over the place of Islam in the new democracies promised by the Arab Spring revolts.

Morsi, who claims to be the only true Islamist in the race, faces his fiercest competition from a more liberal Islamist, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a pioneering leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was expelled in June for arguing for a more pluralistic approach to both Islam and Egypt. He is campaigning now as the leading champion of liberal values.

Both face a third front-runner, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, who argued this week that Egypt cannot afford an "experiment" in Islamic democracy.

Egypt's future at stake

The winner could set the course for Egypt's future, overseeing the drafting of a new constitution, settling the status of its current military rulers and shaping its relations with the West and Israel. But as the Islamists step toward power across the region, the most important debate may be the one occurring within their own ranks.

Morsi's conservative record and early campaign statements have sharpened the contrast between competing Islamist visions.

The Brotherhood, the 84-year-old religious revival group known here for its preaching and charity, as well as for its moderate Islamist politics, took a much softer approach in the official platform it released last year. It dropped the "Islam is the solution" slogan and promised to respect the Camp David accords with Israel. Its parliamentary leaders distanced themselves from the Salafis, ultraconservative Islamists who won a quarter of the seats in Parliament.

The Brotherhood's original nominee was its leading strategist, Khairat el-Shater, a businessman known for his pragmatism. He had close personal ties to Salafi leaders, but he did not leave much of a paper trail besides an opinion column in a Western newspaper stressing the Brotherhood's commitment to tolerance and democracy.

El-Shater was disqualified last week because of a past conviction at a Mubarak-era political trial. In his short-lived campaign, he stressed the Brotherhood's plans for economic development and rarely, if ever, brought up Islamic law.

By contrast, Morsi, 60, is campaigning explicitly both as a more conservative Islamist and as a loyal executor of El-Shater's plans. He campaigns with El-Shater under a banner with both their faces, fueling critics' charges that he would be a mere servant of El-Shater and the Brotherhood's executive board.

But Morsi is also courting the ultraconservative Salafis, whose popular candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, was also disqualified. Morsi may be tacking to the right to court the Salafis as a swing vote in the contest with Aboul Fotouh, or he may merely be expressing more conservative, older impulses within the Brotherhood.

"Some want to stop our march to an Islamic future, where the grace of God's laws will be implemented and provide an honest life to all," he proclaimed Saturday night at his first rally, in a Nile delta town. "Our Salafi brothers, the Islamic group, we are united in our aims and Islamic vision. The Islamic front must unite so we can fulfill this vision."

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