(Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh speaks during an interview with Reuters in Cairo April 24, 2012. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh was jailed by Hosni Mubarak but has emerged as a front-runner for his old job as president of Egypt, staking claim to the political centre in this nascent democracy with a moderate Islamist platform that has found broad appeal.

A senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood until he parted ways with the group last year, he is part of the generation of Islamist activists that spawned al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Both doctors, they spent time in adjoining jail cells in 1981. For the most part, that’s where the similarities end.

Abol Fotouh presents himself as a champion of moderate Islam, yet he has been able to win the backing of hardliners thanks partly to a political brain which many say sets him apart from the Brotherhood. Even some liberals, impressed by his reformist zeal, say they could vote for the bespectacled 60-year old.

With his presidential bid, he is charting new waters for the Islamist mainstream, reaching out to the tens of millions of Egyptians who played no role in politics in Mubarak’s days but are expected to flock to the polls for the May 23-24 vote.