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Egyptian secular liberals and leftists hoping for a moderate new president who could stand up to the army's desire to control politics are turning to an unlikely candidate: an Islamist doctor.
The May 23 election will be the first time Egyptians choose a head of state after last year's revolution which ousted Hosni Mubarak as president. The strongest contenders so far are Islamists or figures who served in the former regime, leaving the liberals and young activists who led the revolt sidelined and fearful of a carve-up of power between the military and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
In an effort to prevent this, many of them are flocking to Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a Brotherhood dissident and consistent critic of the country's military rulers.
Mr Aboul Fotouh insists that he will protect personal freedoms from restrictions by hardline Islamists and guarantee equality for Christians, who form an estimated 10 per cent of the population. He has also pledged to hold accountable the ruling military council for human rights violations committed during its tenure.
Until last year Mr Aboul Fotouh was considered a leading light of the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest political force in the country despite decades of repression and now the main powerbroker in parliament. Then he was expelled from the organisation for breaking ranks and standing for president in defiance of the Brotherhood's decision not to field a candidate.
The group had wanted to reassure the ruling military and Egypt's foreign partners that it did not seek to monopolise power after the revolution - although in March, Brotherhood officials said they were reconsidering because none of the current presidential contenders was suitable.
"If you are a liberal and with the revolution you don't have another option at this point," said Rabab al-Mahdi, Mr Aboul Fotouh's political adviser and a leftwing professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. "If the election goes to a second round, he can make it." Supporters say Mr Aboul Fotouh's appointment of Ms al-Mahdi, who does not wear the Islamic headscarf, is a sign of inclusiveness and a willingness to compromise on an issue usually sensitive to Islamists.
"It is an indicative decision, and importantly for me his programme also speaks of social justice," said Wael Khalil, a leftist political activist. "The revolution was based on [millions of] individuals making their own decisions to support it. If Aboul Fotouh becomes the candidate of those individuals it will be the biggest victory of the revolution."
The Brotherhood, a hierarchical and highly-disciplined group, has threatened to expel members who support Mr Aboul Fotouh, though analysts expect that many younger Islamists will vote for him anyway.
Barring an official Brotherhood candidate, Mr Aboul Fotouh will probably face stiff competition from at least two strong contenders: Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister who served under Mr Mubarak and who is popular for his anti-Israeli rhetoric; and Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail, an ultraconservative Islamist with a large following among the country's poor.
In addition, it is not certain that Mr Aboul Fotouh will emerge as the sole candidate for the country's fragmented secular constituency. "Backing Aboul Fotouh is a strategic mistake by liberals and revolutionaries," said Shady al-Ghazali Harb, a leader of the youth coalition which launched the revolt against Mr Mubarak. "His is an Islamist's project."
Preparations for the presidential poll come amid deepening gloom as the economy, badly hit by political turmoil, stagnates and government remains in the hands of a weak cabinet appointed by the military. The generals have promised to leave power in July after the new president has been elected.
There have been rumours that a possible "consensus candidate" supported by both the generals and the Brotherhood could be put forward. Liberals and young revolutionary activists fear that a consensus president would mean a sharing of power between the military and the Brotherhood and a return to authoritarianism, this time with a religious hue.
But the Brotherhood fears that declaring its support for a candidate attractive to the army could result in a dramatic loss of credibility in the eyes of its supporters, especially with Islamists in the race.
The ruling generals also have a stake in the outcome and are thought to be trying to influence the process to ensure that the next president will protect the military's vast economic interests and block attempts to hold them accountable for past violations.