Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh: A Witness to the History of Egypt’s Islamic Movement

In the early 1970s, Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh was enrolled at Cairo University’s medical school. Back then, he did not approve of coeducation, music or watching football. The bearded young man dismissed all forms of entertainment as evil acts that distract Muslims from observing their faith. To propagate the message of Islam and establish an Islamic state, he did not even mind the use of violence.

This intransigent outlook was reversed a few years later upon his integration into the Muslim Brotherhood, and today Abou el-Fotouh is counted among the most open-minded Islamists whose political views are not shared by the wide majority of the nation’s oldest Islamic organization.

This change of heart is well-depicted in Abou el-Fotouh’s recent memoir,  Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh: A Witness to the History of Egypt’s Islamic Movement, published last month.

In only 150 pages, the high-ranking Islamist portrays a vivid picture of an exceptionally crucial moment in the history of Egypt’s Islamist groups: when thousands of radical students chose to join the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, others held on to their revolutionary worldview, assassinating then-President Anwar Sadat in the hopes of resurrecting the political model of the Prophet’s times.

“Although Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh’s testimony comes in few pages, it serves as a concise history book for al-Jamaat al-Islameyya (Islamic Society) since they emerged in the 1970s in Cairo University’s medical school and spread to all of Egypt and other Arab countries,” writes Hossam Tamam, the book’s editor and a prominent expert on Islamism.

As a medical student, Abou el-Fotouh co-founded the first cell of al-Jamaat al-Islameyya. Disillusioned with President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s left-leaning secular project, Abou el-Fotouh and many of his cohorts sought refuge in religion in the wake of Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War.

“Holding session for the recitation of the Koran and writing religious advice on the wall were our most remarkable activities,” remembers Abou el-Fotouh. “Then, we went further and started writing prophetic traditions on blackboards. Later, we began writing political messages about unjust rulers and their accountability vis-à-vis God.”  

At many points in the book, Abou el-Fotouh fends off accusations that Islamist students had agreed to help President Sadat crush his communist foes who enjoyed strong leverage on Egyptian campuses. “I swear to God, we did not strike any deal with the regime or with anyone,” he says. “Yet, it is true that Sadat wanted and tried to control the Islamic movement at universities.”

Abou el-Fotouh’s mixed feelings toward Sadat, who jailed him and hundreds of his opponents one month before his murder, come through strongly in the text. While he dismisses Sadat’s rapprochement with the Israelis and his crackdown on Islamists, Abou el-Fotouh hails the era for its political freedom.

“Sadat’s era was distinguished by a level of freedom that Egypt had not seen since 1952. It was real freedom–freedom to work and not just to talk, unlike under President Mubarak. Mubarak allowed freedom of opinion but crushed the freedom of political activities,” he remembers.

At the time, Abou el-Fotouh did not appreciate “that level of freedom,” rather focusing on his frustration with Sadat’s policies. In 1977, Abou el-Fotouh’s frustrations manifested in a famous confrontation with the late president, during a meeting Sadat held with student union leaders. Abou el-Fotouh accused Sadat of targeting Muslim preachers and crushing student protests unlawfully in the wake of the 1977 bread riots.  

“I raised my hand many times to speak but he ignored me. I did not know why, so I went straight to the microphone without waiting for permission and spoke and my speech was quite cruel,” writes Abou el-Fotouh.

The 59-year-old activist documents how his group gradually developed a revolutionary agenda that condoned the use of violence to establish an Islamic order, which came about after delving into the writings of radical Muslim thinkers including Ibn Taymeyya, Abou al-Aala al-Mawdoudy and Sayyed Qotb.

“For us, state institutions contradicted the spirit of Islam and had to be eliminated. And an Islamic order had to be established instead,” writes Abouel Fotouh. “We believed that violence was permissible and also required in some instances to spread the message.”

He acknowledges the influence of Saudi Wahhabism on the group during its formative years. “Back then, we used to receive thousands of copies of Islamic books from Saudi Arabia. They were all gifts. They did not cost us anything.”

Abou el-Fotouh emphasises the moment of rupture between his old and new worldview. His self-critique is well demonstrated in the condescending tone he uses when talking about al-Jamaat al-Islameyya. Looking back, he condemns its members–himself included–as intransigent and intolerant Islamists who exercised “intellectual terrorism” against their secular counterparts.

This attitude was gradually amended after the group was invited to join the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s. The book offers an elaborate and precise account of this problematic integration, showing the level of secrecy that surrounded the co-opting of young Islamists by embattled Muslim Brotherhood leaders, released by Sadat after languishing for many years in Nasser’s prisons.

Abou el-Fotouh had his first meeting with a newly released Muslim Brotherhood leader in a shoe store. While pretending to try on shoes, the two interlocutors discussed possibilities of cooperation.

But this merger, far from proceeding smoothly, instigated divisions within al-Gamaat al-Islamiyya. Many members refused to join an organization they dismissed as not conservative enough. Eventually, the group split into two distinct entities.

According to the book, only a small minority chose to part ways with al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya by refusing to submit to the Muslim Brotherhood. “Those who swore allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood constituted the majority of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya leaders and rank and file,” Abou el-Foutouh writes.  

In recent years, Abou el-Foutouh has sought to promote liberal and democratic values within a highly conservative organization. In many interviews, he has contradicted the group’s official positions by stressing that women and Copts should have the right to run for president of a Muslim country. Last year, his exclusion, along with other moderate figures, from the group’s Guidance Bureau made headlines and spawned speculations that hawkish Islamists have gained full control of the nation’s oldest Islamic organization.

It is quite apparent that Abou el-Fotouh’s current views are not welcomed by the group’s leadership. Yet, his memoirs tend to sanctify the Muslim Brotherhood as if it was the guardian of moderate Islam. Throughout the text, he expresses his gratitude to the group’s leaders for the change of heart that he had gone through in the 1970s while failing to address the group’s problematic ideology as it stands today. 

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