Salafists back liberal candidate in Egypt’s presidential race

The New York Times reports: Egypt’s most conservative Islamists endorsed a liberal Islamist for president late Saturday night, upending the political landscape and confounding expectations about the internal dynamics of the Islamist movement.

The main missionary and political groups of the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, threw their support behind Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a dissident former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood known for his tolerant and inclusive view of Islamic law.

The endorsement goes a long way toward making Mr. Aboul Fotouh the front-runner in a campaign that could shape the ultimate outcome of the revolt that ousted the former strongman, Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Aboul Fotouh’s liberal understanding of Islamic law on matters of individual freedom and economic equality had already made him the preferred candidate of many Egyptian liberals.

His endorsement on Saturday by the Salafis now makes him the candidate of Egypt’s most determined conservatives, too. Known for their strict focus on Islamic law, the Salafis often talk of reviving medieval Islamic corporal punishments, restricting women’s dress and the sale of alcohol, and cracking down on heretical culture.

The decision was announced by officials of the preaching group the Salafi Call and on the Web site of its allied party, Al Nour. Neither group gave a definitive reason for their pick.

But Salafi leaders described their decision in part as a reaction against the presidential candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful and established Islamist group that now dominates Parliament. Though more moderate than the Salafis, the Brotherhood also favors the fashioning of an explicitly Islamic democracy in Egypt, and on social and cultural issues the group is closer to the Salafis than Mr. Aboul Fotouh is.

But in television interviews on Saturday night, some Salafis said they believed the Brotherhood’s current candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was weaker than either Mr. Aboul Fotouh or the Brotherhood’s original nominee, Khairat el-Shater. Others said the group was wary of giving a monopoly on political power to the Brotherhood, which recently abandoned its pledge not to seek control of the presidency as well as the Parliament.

Abdel Moneim El Shahat, a spokesman for the Salafi group, acknowledged a big difference with Mr. Aboul Fotouh over his understanding of a verse of the Koran declaring, “There is no compulsion in religion,” which he interprets to mean that the state should not compel people to follow religious rules. But such compulsion “in reality is not possible now” in any case, Mr. Shahat said.

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