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Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futuh: A different kind of syndicalism
Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futuh: A different kind of syndicalism
Following riots on 7 January, 1977 president Anwar El-Sadat met student leaders from across the country.The government was having a hard time containing the fallout from the riots and wanted to gauge students’ reactions. Abdel-Moneim Abul- Futuh was, at the time, head of Egypt’s Students’ Union and he had one question he wanted to ask El-Sadat.
Friday, September 7,2007 09:59
by Omayma Abdel-Latif Al-Ahram Weekly

Following riots on 7 January, 1977 president Anwar El-Sadat met student leaders from across the country.

The government was having a hard time containing the fallout from the riots and wanted to gauge students" reactions. Abdel-Moneim Abul- Futuh was, at the time, head of Egypt"s Students" Union and he had one question he wanted to ask El-Sadat.

Repeatedly ignored by the president at the meeting -- Abul-Futuh believes it was because he was the only bearded student present -- he eventually took the floor without El-Sadat"s permission.

"Mr President," he began, "why do you surround yourself with hypocrites who do not work for Egypt"s interest? Why do you keep all the good people away, and where is this country going?"

Abul-Futuh had hardly finished his last sentence when an impatient El-Sadat ordered him to shut up.

El-Sadat told the young student he should learn how to address someone as old as his father on which note he ended the conversation, refusing to allow Abul-Futuh to say more.

Abul-Futuh recalls the encounter with El-Sadat clearly -- it would have made an impression on any young student. And he emerged from it with a conviction that has remained the guiding principle of a life of activism that has spanned more than three decades and which began in 1972 when Abul-Futuh became the leader of a group of young men in Cairo University who would change the lexicon of Egypt"s politics of dissent.

"I realised," he says, "that in societies like ours where despotism is the greatest malaise the highest form of Jihad (religious struggle) is to utter a word of truth in the presence of a tyrannical ruler."

There is agreement, among Abul-Futuh"s friends and foes alike, that he is the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood"s dovish wing, though some of his detractors, particularly from the old left, accuse him of being the moderate façade behind which the Brotherhood hides a much more radical agenda. He is, say some, no less hawkish than the staunchest hawks inside the group.

A doctor by profession, Abul-Futuh is currently secretary-general of the Arab Doctors" Syndicate. He holds an MA in hospital management and an LLM from Cairo University"s Faculty of Law.

The past few years have been crucial in the development of Abul-Futuh"s activism. He has emerged not only as one of the staunchest critics of the regime, but is a member of the politburo of Egypt"s leading opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Indeed, so closely is Abul-Futuh associated with Egypt"s politics of dissent that it is almost impossible to separate the man, whose vision of Islam and politics was embraced by thousands of students across the country during the early and mid-1970s, from the movements of which he is part, be it Gamaa Islamiya, which he founded with other students in 1972, or the Muslim Brotherhood which he joined four years later.

Abul-Futuh believes it was joining the Brotherhood in 1976 that reshaped his understanding of Islam.

"Joining the Brotherhood was a huge turning point for me," he recalls. "It was an eye-opener to what we term Al-Islam Al-Wasati (centrist Islam). During the early 1970s we were exposed only to Salafi ideas -- books would come in tonnes and for free from Saudi Arabia at the time. And Brotherhood literature was banned. It was people like the late Omar El-Telmesani -- then supreme guide -- that made me realise Islam was about a plethora of ideas and opinions and it was encountering such plurality within Islam that radically altered my views."

Born in 1951, Abul-Futuh grew up in a house "just like any other Egyptian house where religion was about praying and fasting". His father, a civil servant, had no pronounced political leanings though, according to Abul-Futuh, he used to attend the sermons of Imam Hassan Al-Banna regularly before Al-Banna was assassinated in 1949. Abul-Futuh recalls asking his father why he did not join the Brotherhood ranks. His father replied he did not like the way the group mixed religion with politics.

Abul-Futuh interprets his father"s shying away from politics as a result of his awareness of the fate of Brotherhood members.

"In his mind engaging in politics inevitably led to imprisonment. He saw this happen to the communists and the Brothers and he came to the conclusion that whoever works in politics in this country will eventually spend years in prison."

When he enrolled in Al-Ibrahimiya Secondary school, among the most politicised schools in Egypt, there was not a shadow of doubt about who his political idol was.

"We all considered ourselves Gamal Abdel- Nasser"s sons. Even though we were aware of the persecution of the Brotherhood and the communists we still regarded him as the leader, a symbol of dignity and Egyptian nationalism... I was not a member of any political groupings at the time. I did not feel I needed to because I believed in Abdel-Nasser."

That belief was shaken to the core by the June 67 defeat.

"It was a huge turning point in how we related to Abdel-Nasser. We had to reconsider our givens, about him and his rule, such was our trauma seeing the army defeated."

Turning to religion, says Abul-Futuh, was a natural response for Egyptians shocked by the defeat. And it is one that would colour his growing politicisation.

In 1970 Abul-Futuh enrolled in Cairo University"s Faculty of Medicine, entering a phase that still shapes his political choices. At the time the campus was dominated by leftist politics. Students" unions were all run by leftists who reinforced their presence through debates initiated on wallpapers which, to Abul-Futuh"s shock, sometimes carried anti-Islamic writings.

"It was a shock for someone like me to see writings that defamed the Prophet"s saying."

He began to explore ways to counter such writings. Quran reading circles were formed and scholars and Ulemma were invited to give lectures on campus. Abul-Futuh and his comrades, who had begun to network with students from universities across the country, felt they were far more in tune with the general public than their leftist colleagues, and as such they should be more widely represented on campuses.

Abul-Futuh"s small circle quickly grew. A key moment occurred when the group decided to run in Students" Union elections. In 1972 they scored a landslide victory, winning control of five out of six Students" Union committees. The group changed its name from Al-Gamaa Al-Deeneya (the religious group) to Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya (the Islamic group).

"There was nothing planned in this at all. It came about as a product of the rivalry between the leftists and those who were religious. We thought those who occupied union posts were working to mute our voices and the union was not representative of a large number of students. It was campus politics coloured with the jealousy of youth."

Leftist student leaders would paint a different picture. The rise of the Islamic group on the campus, they argue, was a political move engineered by El-Sadat to crush the leftists. El-Sadat, they argue, boosted the Islamists to use them against communists and others from the left. It was, after all, at the time El-Sadat was breaking with the Soviets, purging Russian experts from the Egyptian army and building bridges with the Americans.

While Abul-Futuh concedes that El-Sadat did indeed give orders that more freedom should be allowed on campuses, that, he says, is as far as it goes.

"This myth about an agreement between the Islamists and El-Sadat to rid the campus of leftists is not true," he insists. "If there had been any such agreement I would have been the first person to know since I was leading the movement inside the campus. No such agreement could have taken place without my knowledge. It never happened."

In less than three years the movement would become a leading player on campuses throughout the country. By 1975 senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, released from prison a year earlier, made contacts with Abul-Futuh and his circle, provoking a debate within the group over what their relationship should be with the Brotherhood.

The Islamic group, says Abul-Futuh, had reservations about the Brotherhood"s pacifism.

"Salafist and Jihadist tendencies coloured the way we viewed the Brotherhood. Viewed through our revolutionary lens, the Brotherhood did not seem at the time to be close to our vision."

That said, the group"s core leaders, including Abul-Futuh, Ibrahim El-Zaafarani and Essam El- Erian decided that a closer relationship was desirable.

"We decided to put our reservations aside and realised that we could work under their umbrella. An alliance was struck in 1976 though the Brotherhood urged us not to utter a word about the agreement lest it should provoke a ruthless reaction from El-Sadat who loathed them."

It remained more or less covert until 1979, when it was no longer possible to hide.

Embracing the Brotherhood, in Abul-Futuh"s view, transformed him -- and most of his generation of early Islamists -- from extremists to moderates.

"Perhaps, had we not joined the Brotherhood, my generation would have turned into Ayman El- Zawahris and Bin Ladens. The wing of the Islamic group which took up arms against the state was precisely the group that did not join the ranks of the Brotherhood."

Almost three decades after joining the Brotherhood Abul-Futuh still has some reservations, acknowledging shortcomings in the group"s performance.

Asked about how much of a following he has with the group"s rank and file, he declines to answer.

Is he a charismatic leader?

Abul-Futuh is suddenly lost for words.

"Do I have a charisma?" He repeats the question.

"I don"t know. I never thought about it. Islamic upbringing is about self-denial I guess."

One possible answer to the questions came during a recent demonstration in Ramses Square. Protesters were split into two camps over whether or not they should hold the Quran in their hands during the rally. Abul-Futuh enters the scene, ordering all protesters to put down the Quran. Everyone abided by his decision.

"I did not realise that people noted what I was doing. I asked my brethren to put down the Quran because I believed such religious symbols should not be invoked in a political activity," he says.

It is an explanation which many would argue runs counter to the very notion on which the Brotherhood is founded -- i.e. that politics and religion cannot be separated.

Abul-Futuh agrees but makes an attempt to explain.

The Brotherhood, he says, presents a human interpretation of religion and this interpretation could, therefore -- and should -- be criticised.

"Whoever is in dispute with the Brothers can take issue with their interpretation of the holy text but not with the holy text itself. In the final analysis, the Brothers did not write the Quran, it is God"s making. If I say -- for example -- that as a Muslim I believe that Islam and democracy are compatible another Muslim could differ with this interpretation. There is no manipulation of the truth there."

"Some people claim to be speaking in the name of God and there is no point in discussing anything with them. But this is wrong. The Prophet himself was criticised and some of his views were contested by some of the Prophet"s Companions ( Sahaba ) all the more reason, then, for the Brothers not to be above criticism."

Some of the group"s critics argue that views such as Abul-Futuh"s carry no weight inside the Brotherhood, which is ruled by hawks. They also argue that the group, which has recently been calling for democracy and freedom, is not itself democratic.

Abul-Futuh begs to differ. While he acknowledges that there are some "shortcomings" in the group"s democratic experience he is adamant that the Muslim Brotherhood is "the most democratic entity among existing political forces".

"There is a wrong perception that blind loyalty to the group"s seniors is the operating logic inside the group. But we follow the example of early Islamic teaching which urges us to question and to speak the truth no matter what the cost. We speak the truth among ourselves and in the face of a tyrannical ruler."

Elections, says Abul-Futuh, are the criteria for climbing the Brotherhood"s hierarchy.

"A group as large as the Brotherhood would stagnate without elections which means fresh blood and flesh."

There are shortcomings in the exercise of democracy within the group but these, says Abul- Futuh, are a result of pressures exerted by the security forces.

"How can we function properly as a group when we are continuously hounded and face arrest even if four or five of us meet under one roof? We are forced to go underground." Despite such difficulties, the Brotherhood"s decision-making remains a collective enterprise and no one, insists Abul-Futuh, can make a decision individually, "including the supreme guide himself".

The group emerged as Egypt"s largest and most organised opposition movement during Hosni Mubarak"s presidency: this does not mean, though, that during Mubarak"s 24-year- rule the regime has displayed any great leniency.

"Mubarak"s prisons have always contained Muslim Brotherhood detainees. Not once have they been empty of Muslim Brotherhood prisoners. We have always had a place reserved for us in the prisons," Says Abul-Futuh.

So what is the extent of Muslim Brotherhood membership?

Abul-Futuh says he does not know, but "we have units covering every village and governorate in Egypt."

Calls for transforming the group into a political party have met little resistance inside the group. Abul-Futuh, one of the key promoters of the idea, believes the time is ripe for the group to become a political party.

"We want a civilian party with a religious reference. It will not be a religious party because it will not be ruled by the Mullahs. We simply believe in Islam as a point of reference."

"This will not be the Muslim Brother"s party or a party of Muslims alone. It will be a party for all Egyptians, not a party for a sect or a religion. In 1943 the politburo of the Brotherhood had three Copts on its board who acted as councilors to Imam Hassan Al-Banna."

One last question: How does Abul-Futuh, who is also a member of Kifaya, read the unfolding of events on the political scene? "Despotism has always been there but corruption has reached unprecedented levels. The marriage between corruption and despotism means corruption is protected by despotism. This is the most dangerous crisis Egypt faces and unfortunately there are no quick fixes. Mass popular action must take Egypt"s stability into account -- after all, we seek reform, not chaos."


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