CAIRO – A moderate Islamist campaigning to be Egypt's next president has won the support of some unlikely allies — the country's most conservative religious groups, including former militant jihadists.
Their backing reflects the growing mistrust by many Islamists of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, the would-be flagbearer for the religious vote. And it has made Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh a front-runner with an unusual coalition that includes secular liberals and even some Christians along with hard-line Islamists.
"He (Abolfotoh) will be a president for all Egyptians," Wael Ghonim, an icon of the youthful revolutionaries behind the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak last year, wrote on his Twitter account Monday.
"He will bring us together, not divide us."
Before he was thrown out last year, Abolfotoh was a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood — now Egypt's most powerful political force. He earned the reputation as a moderate reformer within the Islamic fundamentalist group.
But the bearded, 60-year-old former dissident eventually fell out with the group after publicly slamming it for not being transparent about its financing and irking his fellow Brothers by saying he would rather have a good Christian than a bad Muslim as president — contradicting the movement's line that majority Muslim Egypt should not be ruled by a Christian.
Now he is one of the few candidates with crossover appeal for both religious conservatives and liberals.
The endorsements and other key developments over recent days dramatically shifted the fortunes of Abolfotoh from a promising underdog to a real contender. The biggest change came when the election commission disqualified three strong candidates — Hosni Mubarak's former spy chief and vice president, Omar Suleiman, the Brotherhood's first choice candidate Khairat el-Shater and ultraconservative lawyer-turned-preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.
Abolfotoh's newfound support comes from the ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis. They adhere to an interpretation of Islam partly inspired by Saudi Arabia's puritanical Wahhabi doctrine and want to see Islamic law strictly applied in Egypt.
Their backing eats into the chances of Mohammed Morsi, the second choice candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which won just under half of all seats in parliamentary elections around the start of this year. Abolfotoh's growing strength also provides Amr Moussa, Mubarak's longtime foreign minister and a front-runner himself, with a formidable competitor for the land's highest office.
"Our top priority was: Who has the biggest chance to win? And we found that Abolfotoh has that chance," said Sheik Abdel-Akhar Hamad, a top leader of the Gamaa Islamiya, the jihadist group that endorsed Abolfotoh on Monday.
The group was partially motivated by its fear of the Brotherhood's "desire to monopolize power," Hamad said.
In many ways, the May 23-24 presidential election will answer the persistent question of whether the popular uprising that toppled Mubarak has actually transformed Egypt from autocratic rule to a functioning democracy or whether it just removed the head, Mubarak, but left the regime intact, as many of the liberal youth groups claim.
That someone like Abolfotoh has a realistic shot at being president also speaks to the stunningly swift empowerment of Islamists in post-Mubarak Egypt and their emergence as a the nation's most powerful group after years of persecution. The candidate was imprisoned multiple times under the Mubarak regime, once for five years.
Abolfotoh, according to an opinion poll conducted by the state-funded Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, has the support of 27 percent of voters, well behind Moussa who has 41 percent. The poll surveyed 1,200 participants in most of Egypt's 28 provinces and has a 3 percent margin of error. It was conducted in mid-April.
The poll indicates Abolfotoh is likely to face Moussa in a June 16-17 runoff. The winner will be announced June 21, the last stop in a bumpy transitional process led by the generals who took over from Mubarak last year and promised to step down by July 1.
Official campaigning kicked off Monday.
Abolfotoh has been cagey about the state of his relations with the Brotherhood, leaving the exact nature of current ties to the group ambiguous.
That may be motivated in part by his hopes of wooing the votes of young Brotherhood members who are at odds with the group's leaders over policy, particularly the reversal of initial insistence that they would not field a presidential candidate.
However, his views on core Islamic issues set him apart from the fundamentalist Brotherhood on questions such as the role of women and Christians in mainly Muslim Egypt and whether there is a need to implement Islamic Shariah laws, such as forcing women to respect a strict Islamic dress code in public.
"The greatest thing in Shariah is freedom and justice," Abolfotoh told a television interviewer recently. "Some people think that you can force people to pray or punish them for not praying. Forcing people against their individual rights create a hypocrite person. When women wear hijab (Islamic headscarf) because they fear punishment, this is religious hypocrisy."
Such moderate views raise the question of what Abolfotoh offered in return for the endorsements he received.
For example, the Gamaa Islamiya took part in the planning and execution of President Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination and fought a low intensity insurgency against Mubarak's regime for the rest of the 1980s and most of the 1990s to create a purist Islamic state.
The Gamaa's nod to Abolfotoh followed a more important endorsement over the weekend from a group that is just as radical — the ultraconservative Dawa Salafiya and its political arm Al-Nour party, which leads a bloc that controls nearly 20 percent of parliament's seats. Al-Nour, like the Gamaa, advocates the implementation of a strict interpretation of Shariah laws that many view as unfair to women, minority Christians and secularists.
"We felt that it is too much for the Muslim Brotherhood to have it all: parliament with its two chambers, the presidency and the Cabinet," senior Gamaa official Assem Abdel-Maged said. "This is harmful to the whole Islamist movement."
Yasser Bourhami, an influential ultraconservative cleric from the Dawa Salafia, said Abolfotoh pledged to the group that, if elected, he would allow the Islamist bloc in parliament, the chamber's largest, form the government and allow the Salafis a free rein to preach in mosques and religious schools.
"He (Abolfotoh) is the most accepted by the people. He is the most balanced," he said in videotaped comments posted on social networks. "This is what we think is the best for this phase."