By Tom Perry
CAIRO (Reuters) - Two of the top contenders for Egypt's presidency are confronting a similar challenge on the campaign trail: their past.
Leading Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh and veteran diplomat Amr Moussa are both facing scrutiny over their former affiliations, one to the Muslim Brotherhood and the other to the administration of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
With just two weeks to go before Egypt's first real presidential election, each is taking aim at the other's past in a surge of negative campaigning.
Moussa has called Abol Fotouh "a sheikh", an apparent reference to his Brotherhood background. Abol Fotouh, in turn, has described Moussa as part of an old guard that is unfit to lead.
The verbal attacks echo a broader debate about Egypt's future and reflect the conflicting concerns of those who are either worried about a consolidation of the influence of Islamist groups suppressed by Mubarak or a comeback by remnants of the old order that would undermine progress to democracy.
Moussa and Abol Fotouh have sought to position themselves as true independents as they compete for the centre in a fast-evolving political landscape. For now, they are polling ahead of the rest. Yet the polls also indicate many Egyptians have yet to decide how they will vote in the May 23-24 election.
Other leading contenders present voters with a starker choice between the old order and the Islamist movement. One is Mohamed Mursi, the Brotherhood's presidential candidate. The other is Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister.
Moussa, who served as Mubarak's foreign minister for a decade until 2001, has been batting away questions about his links to the former administration since he declared his intention to run more than a year ago. The 75-year-old has portrayed himself as a dissident voice in government who fell out of favor with the president.
But the questions have not gone away - partly because his opponents keep raising the point.
Asked in a newspaper interview published on Sunday about his relationship with Mubarak, he attacked those who sought to "spoil" his name and said his detractors should read a Mubarak memoir for evidence of his opposition to policy while serving as foreign minister.
ROWS WITH BROTHERHOOD
Abol Fotouh's move to the top of the opinion polls has brought with it similarly close scrutiny of his past in the Brotherhood, a group whose inner workings remain a mystery to many Egyptians even as it has moved to the heart of public life.
Outlawed under Mubarak, the Brotherhood won more seats than any other group in parliament. But the movement is fighting its own image problem stemming from perceptions that it wants to dominate public life, something it strongly denies.
Abol Fotouh, a 60-year-old doctor, parted ways with the Brotherhood last year to mount his own presidential bid. Though he was formally expelled from the movement, he is often asked questions that reflect a degree of public suspicion over whether he may still be loyal to it.
His answers have shown him deeply at odds with the leadership of the 84-year-old movement.
During a television appearance on Sunday, Abol Fotouh was quizzed by a Muslim cleric in the audience over whether over he had taken an oath of allegiance to the Brotherhood.
He answered that had not sworn an oath to anybody, describing it as something that belonged to the Brotherhood's distant paramilitary past but had been reinvented by the group's leadership.
In response, the Brotherhood's newspaper declared on its front page on Tuesday that the oath had been "done an injustice" and described it as a commitment to "serve Islam and the nation".
Putting further distance between himself from the Brotherhood, Abol Fotouh said the group outlawed under Mubarak must now register itself with the state - something he said the leadership opposes.
While his organizational ties to the Brotherhood are severed, Abol Fotouh openly says his Islamist views have not changed since he left the group, even as his support has grown among secular-minded voters who see him as a moderate.
He has described himself as a champion of an interpretation of Islam that works for the interests of society at large.
But Moussa has echoed skepticism voiced by others over Abol Fotouh's platform, asking how he can be both a moderate and win the support of the hardline Nour Party that has endorsed Abol Fotouh's candidacy. Moussa has grouped Abol Fotouh together with Mursi and Mohamed Selim al-Awa, another independent Islamist candidate.
"The three of them speak from one platform ... and anyone who does not see this must open their eyes wide," he said in his interview with the el-Youm el-Sabaa newspaper. How could Abol Fotouh represent "a civil project" when "he represents the religious project in the same way as Dr. Mursi represents it?" he asked.
Abol Fotouh, in his appearance on the privately owned Al-Nahar television channel, struck back by saying Moussa's description of him as "the sheikh" reflected the disdain of Mubarak-era officials towards the Islamist movement in general.
While the word "sheikh" refers to someone of religious standing in Islam, it can also mean someone of old age or social or political prominence.
"If Amr Moussa was saying this on the grounds of my old age, well he is more of a sheikh than I am, because Amr Moussa is 16 years older than me," Abol Fotouh said, smiling. "It should be Sheikh Amr Moussa."
(Additional reporting by Ali Abdelati; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alison Williams)