CAIRO – It was a simple gesture: About a decade ago, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, took a pen as a present to Egypt's most famous novelist and Nobel laureate on his 92nd birthday.
It was also a gesture of defiance. The Brotherhood shunned the late novelist Naguib Mahfouz, whose secular writings were considered blasphemous by hard-liners. The move fueled Abolfotoh's reputation as a moderate reformer in a fundamentalist group that opponents fear aims to create religious rule in Egypt.
Now Abolfotoh, who was thrown out of the Brotherhood last year, is banking on that reputation as he runs to become Egypt's president. He is angling to be one of the few candidates with crossover appeal for both religious conservatives and liberals.
His hope is that there is a middle ground in a deeply divided race. On one side are Islamists, particularly Khairat el-Shater, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, who can draw from the large religious vote. On the other are figures from the former regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, symbolized by former intelligence chief and vice president Omar Suleiman. They are looking for support from Egyptians worried over rising Islamist power.
Abolfotoh's chances in the May 23-24 election will hinge on whether he is Islamist enough to pull in part of the religious vote while moderate enough to attract liberals who distrust the Brotherhood but want an alternative to Suleiman. He may benefit from divisions among Islamists, as el-Shater faces a strong challenge from an ultraconservative lawyer-turned-preacher, Hazem Abu Ismail.
Addressing a crowd on the campaign trail this month in the north Cairo district of Birket el-Hagg, Abolfotoh hit most heavily on the themes dear to liberals and revolutionaries — an end to Mubarak-era corruption, creation of a society where presidents and politicians are accountable before the law, reform of the economy, education, health and the police.
At the same time, the 60-year-old Abolfotoh, who sports a conservative's close-cropped beard and a bruise on his forehead from prayer, dotted the speech with Quranic verses and stories of the Prophet Muhammad.
"God loves a Muslim who does work with skill," he said to back his calls for good governance. He added a criticism of hard-liners:
"We must stop presenting Islam and the great Shariah law as if it's foolishness and craziness and extremism. Shariah has never been anything but goodness, mercy, justice and rationality," he said. "Islam knows to administer with skill."
Abolfotoh's rise through the Brotherhood and his ultimate expulsion are key to his bid.
Many fear the Brotherhood will end up with too much power if it wins the presidency. Liberals believe it could bring the same authoritarianism as Mubarak, only now with an Islamist bent. The Brotherhood showed its electoral power by winning nearly half of parliament late last year, making it by far the largest bloc. It and other Islamists sidelined moderates and liberals by creating an Islamist-dominated assembly to write a new constitution.
Abolfotoh, a pediatrician who also holds a law degree, served for years on the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau, its highest executive body. He and el-Shater — the group's longtime deputy leader — were both imprisoned multiple times in crackdowns on the banned group, including a 5-year stint for Abolfotoh under Mubarak.
But he was hardly an institutional man. There was frequent friction with the conservative leadership.
Several years ago, he irked 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.
He also publicly slammed the Brotherhood for not being transparent about its financing. The Brotherhood spent most of its 90 years outlawed and operating in semi-secrecy, building a network of charitable operations and businesses.
When the protests against Mubarak erupted on Jan. 25, 2011, Abolfotoh immediately showed his support, unlike the Brotherhood leadership, which hesitated for days. His stance elated many young Brothers who joined protests even before their leaders condoned it.
During the 18-day uprising, Abolfotoh criticized the Brotherhood for meeting with Suleiman and other regime figures in talks that the regime hoped in vain would defuse the protests.
The final straw came when Abolfotoh announced last year he would run for president, despite the Brotherhood's promise at the time that it would not run a candidate. Abolfotoh was ejected from the group.
The Brotherhood banned its members from supporting Abolfotoh. But significant numbers of youth turned to his campaign. Late last month, the Brotherhood reversed its stance and nominated el-Shater.
Abolfotoh's ejection was a major turnaround for a veteran of the movement. He was part of a generation who, as university activists, breathed new life into the Brotherhood in the 1970s, a time when women felt comfortable going out in miniskirts in Cairo and communists were active on campuses.
Abolfotoh, whose mother was illiterate and whose father was a middle-class government employee, was among a tight-knit group of Islamists at Cairo University. They sold headscarves on campus, encouraging women to take on conservative Muslim dress. They preached to students, defending Islamic virtues in the face of communist ideology.
In 1975, as student union president, Abolfotoh publicly challenged then-President Anwar Sadat, asking him why a prominent Islamic scholar had been arrested and protesters were being beaten by security officers.
"The only scholars left are those who work for you, the state and the leaders of this state," he prods Sadat, in audio of the encounter posted on Abolfotoh's website. Sadat angrily dismisses him from the hall.
Though some liberals have flocked to Abolfotoh's campaign, others remain suspicious of his Brotherhood past. Abolfotoh faces heavy competition for liberals' vote, chiefly from former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa.
"Abolfotoh does not appeal to me because he is part of the Islamist camp. If our choice is between a moderate Islamist or an extreme Islamist, then our hopes for a civil government have been really dashed," said Mahmoud Salem, a member of the liberal Free Egyptians Party. "Abolfotoh could quite possibly allow faith to dictate his policy."
Abolfotoh places far less emphasis than other Islamists on bringing a strict implementation of Islamic law to Egypt, one of the main worries of liberals. He says it should be one of the bases of law and does not seek to strengthen its place in Egypt's constitution.
Instead, he presents faith as key to bringing liberty. At a Cairo rally in early February, a young boy asked him what his definition of freedom was.
"No nation can make you a slave," Abolfotoh replied, giving a line he repeats often: "Tawheed (the Islamic belief in one God) gives you freedom to be a slave to nothing but God."