CAIRO (Reuters) - A former member of the Muslim Brotherhood is the best of the Egyptian presidential candidates to have emerged so far, a high-profile Islamic cleric has said, support that could help his chances in the race to become the next head of state.
Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric based in Qatar, described Abdel Moneim Abol Fotoh as the “leading candidate” from a field including former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, a liberal and former foreign minister.
Though it is hard to say how much sway Qaradawi could have over the public at large, his remarks could influence those voters sympathetic to the Islamist groups which dominated recent parliamentary elections, including supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not contesting the presidency.
“I see Abol Fotoh as the first in terms of age and experience of Arab and Egyptian affairs,” Qaradawi said in an interview with the Shorouk newspaper published on Wednesday. “He is a cheerful man of good morals who deals with everyone.”
The election to decide who will be the first president of the post-Hosni Mubarak era will be held in late May, state newspaper al-Ahram quoted a government minister as saying on Wednesday. The ruling military council is due to hand power to the new head of state at the end of June.
One of the most widely respected Sunni Muslim clerics in the Arab world, Qaradawi is a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood seen as close to the group but independent of it.
He is a household name in the Arab world thanks to his regular appearances on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera channel.
The Brotherhood’s decision not to field its own presidential candidate is part of an effort to ease the concerns of those at home and abroad worried about Islamist domination of the post-Mubarak era.
The group has also said it will not back any of the other Islamists who are seeking the presidency, a stance that would appear to rule out its backing for Abol Fotoh, 60.
His decision to run for the presidency resulted in expulsion from the Brotherhood. His departure from the group last year was the culmination of years of friction with other members of the Brotherhood leadership.
More organised than others, the group banned under former Mubarak secured more than 43 percent of the seats in the new legislature, making it the biggest single party.
Qaradawi said Abol Fotoh’s qualities meant he was “ahead of others”. “This is my view,” Qaradawi said. “The Brotherhood have their view.”
Shadi Hamid, an expert on Islamist groups based at the Brookings Doha Center, said Qaradawi’s remarks on Abol Fotoh, while positive, fell short of outright backing for now.
“Because this is the first real election in Egypt, we don’t know how far these kind of endorsements go,” he said.
But he added: “His words carry weight, people listen to him ... If he comes out and says: ‘There are two people here and I urge all Egyptians to vote for one of them’, then that could help tip the balance.”