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Egyptian Candidate's Broad Appeal Has Risks


Egypt, under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, was one of America's closest intelligence partners in the Middle East. And U.S. officials are watching this month's presidential election in Egypt very carefully.

A one-time leader of the Muslim Brotherhood is emerging as a leading candidate. He's considered a moderate Islamist who appeals to secular as well as religious Egyptians.

But, as we hear from reporter Merrit Kennedy in Cairo, the candidate is walking a fine line trying to stay true to his agenda.


MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh's new campaign ad has some unexpected stars - puppets. A diverse group of marionettes chat on a street corner about the best choice for president. At the end, they agree, Aboul Fotouh for a stronger Egypt.

ISSANDR EL-AMRANI: It's a very cute TV ad with puppets, where a lot of the other candidates are kind of grandstanding on nationalistic themes - something a bit playful about him that I think that people like.

KENNEDY: That's Issandr el-Amrani, an analyst who runs a blog called The Arabist. He says it's an unusual ad, but fitting for a candidate who promises a break with the past.

Aboul Fotouh was frequently imprisoned during former President Hosni Mubarak's rule because of his involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood. But he later broke ranks with the Brotherhood over his more moderate stance on the role of Islam in politics, and was later expelled for declaring his candidacy in defiance of the Brotherhood leadership. Supporters say Aboul Fotouh's campaign is the most reformist of the leading candidates.

RABAB AL-MAHDI: Aboul Fotouh will be a rupture with the past - the past including the past regime with its policies, with how the society was viewed, with the relationship between state and society.

KENNEDY: Rabab al-Mahdi is a political and strategic advisor to Aboul Fotouh. Her partnership with the Islamist candidate surprised many in Egypt.

AL-MAHDI: I'm a Marxist unveiled woman who has been active on the left for all of my life. But exactly because of this, I've been attracted to Aboul Fotouh.

KENNEDY: The diversity of Aboul Fotouh's team is often brought up as evidence that he is open-minded, that he can bridge the divide between secularists and Islamists here.

So far he has succeeded in gathering endorsements from ultra-conservative Islamist groups as well as from liberal and leftist groups, says Issandr el-Amrani.

EL-AMRANI: His campaign, even though he doesn't necessarily have tons of money, he doesn't necessarily have the backing of major institutions in the country, his campaign has been in a way the most remarkably insurgent campaign.

KENNEDY: That shows in recent polls. He's second in the race behind Amr Moussa, a liberal who served as Egypt's foreign minister, and later the secretary general of the Arab League.

But some secularists worry that supporting Aboul Fotouh would narrow the political spectrum in Egypt. Akram Ismail is a political activist with the Social Alliance, a leftist political group.

AKRAM ISMAIL: We are not going to push thousands of our activists to this campaign that's actually only developing the political sphere in Egypt between the radical Islamist and the progressive Islamist.

KENNEDY: Aboul Fotouh's focus on economic and social issues appeals to Egyptians at a time when many here are struggling just to get by. Aboul Fotouh addressed those issues in a recent television appearance.

ABDEL MONEIM ABOUL FOTOUH: (Through Translator) Health treatment, housing, jobs, food, good incomes education - these should not still be distant dreams. These are rights.

KENNEDY: He's promising to restore a social welfare net that was whittled away during the Mubarak years.

FOTOUH: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: At the same time, he's emphasized that he is a social democrat friendly to business, a point he made repeatedly at a recent luncheon sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt.

Issandr el-Amrani says he worries Aboul Fotouh might be overstretching himself.

EL-AMRANI: His program - yes, it's aspirational, one of his main slogans is, you know, a Strong Egypt and so on. There's not a lot of detail there.

KENNEDY: Professor Nathan Brown of George Washington University says some commentators have compared Aboul Fotouh to Barack Obama...

NATHAN BROWN: In the sense that you've got this very broad group, who read their own preferences into him, and you've also got a figure who speaks very well to the diverse audiences.

KENNEDY: Should he become Egypt's next president, one of his biggest challenges will be keeping his diverse supporters happy.

For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.