Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood says it will not field a candidate in the presidential election expected later this year. But that hasn't stopped a leading brotherhood maverick from considering a campaign as an independent.
Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh is charismatic and known as a moderate, and he's challenging the leadership of Egypt's largest Islamist movement to run for the leadership of the country.
These days, Cairo is a city alive with political discussion groups. No topic is off-limits, which gives Abol Fotouh plenty of places to speak his mind.
His support for Egypt's Christian minority, his insistence that religion must be separate from the state, and his tolerant views toward secular Egyptians have won him friends in the opposition.
His 30 years in the Muslim Brotherhood, in the top ranks of the movement, earned him a jail sentence during the reign of former President Hosni Mubarak.
"Of course, anybody in [Egypt] struggling for freedom and justice during Mubarak period, he should go to the prison; otherwise, he is not truly struggling," Abol Fotouh says with a chuckle.
Moving Too Fast?
Abol Fotouh, a silver-haired former pediatrician, also has a law degree. He is the elected president of the Union of Doctors and a natural politician — which may explain why he hedges when asked directly if he's going to run for president of Egypt.
"Up to now, I cannot answer about this," he says. But push him a little further and he adds, "When I introduce myself, I should be active to be the first choice for all Egyptians; otherwise, I shall not introduce myself. I do not introduce myself to fail in the election."
He worries that Egypt is moving too fast toward a vote. Democracy is not just an election, he says, but a process — in which society must organize strong parties. Egyptians deserve a choice, a contest of ideas, he says.
But the ruling military council wants to hand back power to a civilian leadership and has scheduled parliamentary elections for September and a presidential vote by the end of the year.
Abol Fotouh will have to decide soon if he intends to run, says Elijah Zarwan, in Cairo for the International Crisis Group.
"Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh is one of the brotherhood's most charismatic figures," Zarwan says. "He speaks very freely, perhaps too freely, for the senior leadership of the brotherhood's liking. His appeal really does extend beyond the brotherhood's traditional constituency."
New Players Versus The Establishment
Abol Fotouh is introducing himself to an even wider constituency, as Egypt plunges into an open national political debate for the first time in generations. At a recent forum, he presented his vision of a democratic, tolerant country where religion is a matter of personal choice.
"If anybody want to be religious, welcome. If anybody want to be nonreligious, welcome," he says. "This is a freedom of each individual; you should advise the people, not control them."
His views are controversial within the brotherhood. He was voted out of a top leadership post last year. But he is popular with the youth wing of the movement, says 30-year-old Ibrahim Houdaiby, an insider whose grandfather was a founding member.
Houdaiby supports Abol Fotouh's ambitions. The country needs a strong Islamist candidate, he says, even though it could cause further splits within the Muslim Brotherhood because the leadership stands against him.
"They would never support him because he is not their candidate. He is not someone they like. They don't like what he stands for," Houdaiby says.
The brotherhood has stated it will not field a candidate for president — and it will force Abol Fotouh to quit the movement if he runs, says Houdaiby.
"So, it would be a bizarre scene, where you would find liberal and leftist activists supporting Abol Fotouh, and you would find they would definitely support another candidate," he says.
It is a reflection of the state of Egypt's democratic transformation after the fall of the old regime. The cracks are showing in established opposition movements, as new political players step up into the spotlight.
Many Egyptians say they are on a crash course, learning about politics and political leaders as fast as they can.