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Egyptian candidate hopes to unite disparate groups

Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh has been hailed by supporters as a big-tent campaigner, but assailed by critics as an insincere flip-flopper.
Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotuh speaking during an interview in May 2011.
Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotuh speaking during an interview in May 2011.

CAIRO // At a time when other front-runners in Egypt's election for president are tailoring their messages towards narrower segments of society, self-styled moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is banking on uniting a wide swath of voters behind his candidacy.

On Friday, for example, female professors, ultraconservative Islamists, liberal activists and former members of the Muslim Brotherhood shared a stage at a Cairo rally, extolling the merits of Mr Aboul Fotouh, 60.

A former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he has been hailed by supporters as a big-tent campaigner - but assailed by critics as an insincere flip-flopper.

Competitive presidential elections are a novel concept in Egypt. The 13 candidates have experimented for the first time with tactics ranging from billboards and door-to-door canvassing to human chains stretching across the countryside, taking cues from parliamentary campaigns in the autumn.

Candidates have spread out across the airwaves, with frequent media appearances and public viewings of campaign videos in squares across the country. The Arab world's first televised presidential debate took place last week, lasting more than three-and-a-half hours and pitting Mr Aboul Fotouh against Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League secretary.

The most effective technique in Egypt's nascent democratic scene, campaign volunteers say, is face-to-face meetings with voters, many of whom appreciate the attention after decades of politicians ignoring them.

Hani Ali Ibrahim, 32, arrives home every day after his accounting job, showers and eats dinner, then heads out to direct Mr Aboul Fotouh's campaign activities in his Cairo neighbourhood.

A local team leader for the campaign, Mr Ibrahim distributes literature and knocks on doors, deciding with friends which campaign tactics have the deepest reach.

"The best one is talking with people, not just giving out flyers and posters," he said.

The campaign schooled him and others in how to reach out to voters, he said on the sidelines of Friday's gathering. "I took four courses before starting," he said. "They taught us about how to talk with all people, not just those who support Aboul Fotouh - those against him, too."

Campaigns have relied on legions of volunteers, many of whom never considered participating in political activities before the fall of President Hosni Mubarak last year.

"The candidates who have volunteers like us are the ones that are going to change the country," Hussein Ali, a 30-year-old information systems expert, said at a march before the Aboul Fotouh rally.

Hundreds of young people beating drums and belting out a campaign song passed nearby, under flags with Mr Aboul Fotouh's likeness.

The race appears to have narrowed to four front-runners but observers have been hard-pressed to make predictions in such an unprecedented, topsy-turvy competition. Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander and Mubarak's last prime minister, and the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi join Mr Aboul Fotouh and Mr Moussa to lead the pack.

The first round of voting takes place on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by a run-off on June 16-17 between the top two candidates, if no one receives a majority of votes.

"I think Egyptians are not accustomed to the idea that a future president … is actually asking for their support and doing everything they can to gain their support," said Mazen Hassan, a lecturer at Cairo University who is studying the election.

Techniques that might work in the western world, such as automated phone calls and text messages, are not as effective here, said Ramy Yaacoub, who was the senior campaign strategist for the liberal Free Egyptians party during the parliamentary elections. Targeting high-density neighbourhoods and bringing communal leaders on board makes the biggest impact, he said.

Massive rallies can also garner significant support, Mr Hassan said, adding that Mr Morsi has stood out by holding events in busy areas and making use of his movement's robust resources to attract crowds and televise his gatherings.

Meanwhile, Mr Aboul Fotouh has tailored his message to a wide variety of constituencies. Supporters say he is the only candidate who inspires ultraconservative Islamists, liberals, and socialists alike.

By varying his vocabulary and content depending on his audience, Mr Aboul Fotouh has met with success, according to Mr Yaacoub, who is the Free Egyptians' chief of staff.

"I think that is the arc of Aboul Fotouh's campaign. It is that simple," Mr Yaacoub said. "It is someone who is good enough to know which words to use when and how."



Updated: May 20, 2012 04:00 AM

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