ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — The stage along the sea was a politically crafted advertisement for Egypt’s diversity: An unveiled woman chatted with a bearded Islamist and a retired soccer star shared the spotlight with a young hero from last year’s revolution.
A roar erupted from a crowd, mostly students, when a white-haired man in a linen blazer raised his arms. As fireworks flashed in the night sky, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh called for national unity to end military rule and unrest that have soured the euphoria since Hosni Mubarak was forced from power.
“The time when Egyptian blood was shed without a price is over,” said the doctor and former political prisoner, opening his presidential campaign last week in this fabled and flaking city. “The time when Egypt’s dignity was humiliated is over. The time when Egypt’s fortune was stolen to be given to a certain group of people is over.”
That message, delivered with an earnest dynamism rare among most candidates, has made Aboul Fotouh the top Islamist contender in the May 23 election. His blend of pragmatism and progressive Islam has been unexpectedly praised by ultraconservative Salafis and backed by liberals even as it threatens the Muslim Brotherhood’s dominance.
Aboul Fotouh, who was expelled from the Brotherhood last year because of his moderate stance, is running second behind secular former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa but ahead of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. His fortunes surged with support from Salafi groups, including a reformed terrorist organization. The endorsements snubbed the Brotherhood and realigned the contentious inner workings of Islamists searching for a galvanizing political voice to rise from the “Arab Spring.”
“He has good ties to all politicians and religious groups. Liberals. Leftists. Islamists. Christian Copts,” said Shaaban Mustafa, a Salafi with a henna-dyed beard who attended Aboul Fotouh’s rally next to a graduate student attuned to the poems of Sylvia Plath. “We need to pull together as a country. It’s not the time for suspicions and divisions.”
Aboul Fotouh has gained followers from candidates who have dropped out or been disqualified, including Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and Salafi preacher Hazem Salah abu Ismail. His classic Arabic dialect resonates with the uneducated and the refined, and his criticism of the Brotherhood for not adjusting its orthodoxy to fit an emerging democracy was a refreshing mark of integrity for many Egyptians.
“The Muslim Brotherhood should not have a political wing,” Aboul Fotouh, 60, said in an interview with The Times. “The interference of preaching and politics causes confusion.”
The backing of Aboul Fotouh by the Nour party and other Salafis was a tactical maneuver. Ultraconservatives are ideologically closer to the Brotherhood than to Aboul Fotouh, but they have grown suspicious of its political ambitions and insular nature. Salafis concluded that Fotouh, despite his pluralistic view of Islam, has wider popular appeal and would make a stronger ally than Morsi.
Salafis make up nearly 25% of parliament but have been beset by dissension in their struggle for political influence. They demand a government deeply rooted in sharia law — their most extreme elements call for harsh justice, including cutting off the hands of thieves — but have also focused on the entrenched economic problems that hurt millions of Salafi followers.
Aboul Fotouh wants a constitution shaded in sharia; all politicians, even liberals, call for that. It is a question of degree, and Aboul Fotouh opposes fundamentalism overpowering civil liberties and constricting the country on foreign policy and economic matters.
“It hurts me a lot to hear that some Christian brothers are emigrating out of Egypt,” he said, alluding to thousands of Copts who have fled over fear of rising Islam and attacks on churches. “The right of any Egyptian should never be violated. Never should an Egyptian have to leave Egypt for another country.”
Aboul Fotouh’s policies are evolving; he recently conceded that he was not well versed in economics. But this deficiency is overshadowed by his demands for social justice and his insistence that the revolution is unfinished until the president “is not a pharaoh over the people,” but a public servant.
“He’s the candidate who lives up to the ideals of the revolution,” said Islam Fathi Hassan, a chemical engineer. “He’s the only candidate who has honestly come out and said, ‘I don’t know everything about everything.’”
This candor and Aboul Fotouh’s criticism of the military rulers have given him the air of aging but vibrant rebel. A recurring image promoted by his campaign is from the 1970s when Aboul Fotouh, a student leader, took a microphone at a debate and criticized then-President Anwar Sadat to his face. It inspired young activists who helped bring down Mubarak.
“We won’t allow any establishment, including the military establishment, to be above question or above the constitution,” Aboul Fotouh said during the rally in Alexandria. “We respect and cherish our army and we aspire to have it as the strongest army in the region. We want it to be answerable to the government and not above political authority.”
But he is also regarded as open to compromise and probably would not become ensnared in a protracted battle with the army, which has promised to hand power to a new president by July 1. He did, however, temporarily suspend his campaign Wednesday to protest the army’s failure to stop clashes that killed at least 11 people during a demonstration.
Aboul Fotouh, who was sentenced by the Mubarak regime to five years in prison in 1996, was a member of the Brotherhood’s leadership committee for two decades. His detractors in the Brotherhood, including Morsi, were increasingly dismayed by his suggestions that the Brotherhood separate religion from politics. This drew support of younger Brotherhood members who also left the group last year.
Conspiracy theories abound these days: Some Egyptians worry that Aboul Fotouh will rekindle his ties to the Brotherhood if he’s elected.
“I’m leaning toward voting for him,” Sara Mostafa, who like nearly 40% of Egyptians is undecided, said as volunteers handed out flags before the rally. “He’s promised to preserve freedom for liberals, and the Islamists also like him. I think he has a dream for all Egyptians. He understands we are diverse.”
Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.