By Ursula Lindsey
Dec 8, 2011
Photos: Egypt’s Election Posters Woo Illiterates
El Nour, the political party of the Salafis, the ultra-orthodox extreme of Islam, won a quarter of the vote in Egypt’s last elections, success that alarmed even the conservative Muslim Brotherhood.
When a coalition of brand-new, ultraconservative Islamist parties won a quarter of the vote in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, liberals were dismayed, and even the Muslim Brotherhood—the country’s well-known and long-established Islamist group—was disconcerted.
But in the village of Ghit al-Nasara, in the northeastern Nile Delta, no one was surprised.
The village on the outskirts of the port town of Damietta is the hometown of Sheikh Mohammed El Taweel, a well-known local Salafi preacher and a candidate for the new El Nour (The Light) party. This week—as El Taweel faced off with a Brotherhood candidate in a heated runoff—the town was plastered with his posters, showing a middle-aged man with an untrimmed beard and a gleaming white skullcap. Minibuses adorned with his face and packed full of voters looped the distance between the village’s main street and the nearby polling station.
“He’s a good man. He serves the community,” says Atef El Elfi. “He prays, he builds schools and mosques, he won a prize for memorizing the Quran.”
Asked about the Nour party’s political program, El Elfi smiled and shrugged: “I know him personally. I’m not concerned with his program. I don’t understand politics.”
Salafis are ultra-orthodox Islamists who say they want to live as much as possible as the Prophet Mohammed’s Companions (the Salafis) did. Men wear untrimmed beards and open sandals. Women don the Niqab. Salafis advocate complete gender segregation and speak of Saudi Arabia as a model.
A coalition of secular parties won about 15 percent of the vote across Egypt, but in Ghit al-Nasara, as in much of the country, the competition has been between Islamist and Islamist.
And it has been more intense than many expected. In the local offices of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, party members didn’t bother disguising their surprise and annoyance at the Salafis’ electoral success.
“We have 80 years of experience,” said Yasser Daoud. “Their candidate has been in politics a few months.”
Freedom and Justice has emerged as the strongest party in post revolutionary Egypt, capturing at least 40 percent of the vote. Disciplined, well-organized, and with a long history of opposition to the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood was always expected to do well.
Yet some Egyptians are suspicious of the Brotherhood, calling it secretive, arrogant, and devoted to its own interests. The Salafis appear to have picked up the support of many pious, first-time voters.
“Imagine you are a 70-year-old woman in the countryside voting for the first time,” said Khaled al-Asily, the secretary-general of the moderate Al Wasat party in Damietta. “At the door of the polling station you meet a Nour party person who tells you, ‘God sees everything. Choose So-and-So and you’ll go to heaven!’”
The Brotherhood itself has long been accused of manipulating voters with religion. But while the Freedom and Justice party’s program is socially conservative and religiously based, its main focus is on economic development and political reform. Their new party supports “a civil state with an Islamic reference” and it abandoned the Brotherhood’s old motto—“Islam is the Solution”—in favor of less religiously loaded slogans like “Let’s Build Egypt Together.”
Salafis have entered the political arena while withholding support for basic freedoms and democratic principles. One prominent Salafi sheikh said recently that democracy—the rule of men rather than God—is a sin.
Now it’s the Brothers who complain that the Nour party is using religion to sway voters. “The simple people in the countryside are confused by a superficial, religious appearance,” says Daoud. “Whoever has this appearance they think is a religious authority and someone who can bring about change.”
Muslim Brothers also allege that their Salafi competitors benefited from the support of the disbanded former ruling party. “I’ve spent 20 years facing the National Democratic Party in elections and I know them all,” says Muslim Brother Taher El Ghobashy. “They are all supporting the Salafis now.”
Other Brothers, in their frustration and confusion over the Salafi gains, looked further afield, suggesting that “members of the former regime, some inside the military council, the Saudi and American intelligence services” all might be behind their fellow Islamists’ impressive organization.
But Salafis have been consolidating their influence in Egyptian society for decades. El Taweel established the local chapter of the Ansar El Sunnaa Salafi charity—in 1972. He has helped build 77 mosques in the area since then, all of them Salafi-controlled. Salafi charities rival the Brotherhood’s own benevolent network.
At the women’s polling station, female El Nour supporters—all wearing the Niqab—listed the many Salafi-sponsored charitable activities: help for the sick and the poor; financial assistance to widows, divorcées, and young women in need of marriage trousseaus; and of course plenty of religious instruction.
“They taught us right from wrong,” one woman said.
Taking a page from the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral playbook, some of the women sat outside the polling station with a laptop with a database of voters, ready to answer questions.
“There is no difference between religion and politics. The Prophet was also the leader and founder of the Islamic state,” said Nour supporter Sawsan. Once the Salafis are in Parliament, “banks will become Islamic banks,” explained Doa. “There will be no interest. In schools the Quran will be a fundamental part of the curriculum. In all matters the government will apply Islamic law.”
It is their extensive network of mosques and charities that has given the Salafis such an electoral advantage, say their opponents. And while El Taweel and his supporters insist all their activities are funded “from our pockets,” many here allege the group is financed by religious conservatives in the Arab Gulf. According to an ongoing judicial investigation, Ansar El Sunna received about $50 million from benefactors in Kuwait and Qatar this year. Critics of the Salafi movement suggest this is just the tip of the iceberg.
And for years, the Mubarak regime gave Salafis “a green light to work in the mosques,” says El Ghobashy. While members of the Brotherhood were jailed for their political activism, he says, Salafis were allowed to operate because of their political quietism: they condemned demonstrations and formally forbid challenging rulers.
Salafis say they were also persecuted by the Mubarak regime but admit that they traded in political participation for religious influence. “If we’d entered politics, they would have prevented us from proselytizing and from preaching” says Taweel. “So we left politics aside, because there was no use.”
Most galling to many is that during the January 25 revolution, many Salafi sheikhs told their congregations not to participate and criticized the protests. “When we were in the street,” says al-Asily, “They were telling us, ‘What are you doing? This is forbidden.’”
Now, however, the ultra-orthodox Islamists say they need to participate in shaping the country’s future and in particular in writing its constitution. “Our goal in entering politics is to protect the Islamic identity of Egypt,” said Taweel, which he alleges is under attack from liberals and foreign forces.
Salafis have entered the political arena while withholding support for basic freedoms and democratic principles. One prominent Salafi sheikh said recently that democracy—the rule of men rather than God—is a sin. Another said that Egyptians novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz promoted prostitution and atheism. And yet another told a female reporter that women’s faces should be covered because they are “like their sexual organs.”
On the posters for the Nour party lists across the country, the single female candidate that must be included by law is represented by a blank square or a stylized flower.
But the Salafis insist that they are not extremists because their goal is to guide society to a correct application of Islam through persuasion, not force. “We will never tell someone they have to wear the Hijab,” said Nour supporter Doa. “I will tell you the principle; if you agree, good. If you don’t, you’re free. But we won’t force people.”
“If our party is fanatic, we would not receive you here,” a Nour party member told this reporter. “You are a lady, you are not Muslim and you don’t wear a scarf on your hair. And we are willing to talk to you. This is a clue that our party is not fanatic.”
In this week’s runoff, the Freedom and Justice candidate finally beat El Taweel. In this case, the Brotherhood’s greater political experience and more moderate message seems to have won out. Yet that’s small consolation to the country’s marginalized revolutionary youth groups, secular and liberal parties, and the Coptic Christian minority.
With Islamists winning over 60 percent of seats in the Parliament so far, religion seems set to dominate and define Egypt’s new political environment.
“You have two parties in America?” said Eman al-Aly, a Freedom and Justice volunteer at a polling station in Damietta. “So do we. Freedom and Justice and Nour.”
Ursula Lindsey is a writer who has been living in Cairo since 2003.
Good work Barry! Another success story for Pres. Downgrade!
smartgirl, why are you - in your infamous words - continuing with "the dumming down of America"
You've won - look at the GOP. "oops"
Carter redux. Another Radical Islamic Republic thanks to a inexperienced Democrat.
CatR is correct in saying "This will take time to unfold."
In the meantime, the Muslim Brotherhood, and its affiliate the Muslim Sisterhood, will be keeping a close eye on the Salafis, as there is a strong and visceral mutual loathing between the two groups since they have long competed for the same customer with distinct versions of political Islam.
The secularists and the military will make a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood to run things jointly, or the military will choose poorly and make a deal with the Salafis, who will turn Egypt to a Sunni version of Iran. It will all come down to who offers the better deal providing access to money and power.
Obama neither caused nor allowed Mubarak to fall. That was predetermined based on what a sorry economic mess Egypt had become; chockfull of corruption, cronyism, and a very oppressive security force that makes Joe Arpaio look like Andy Taylor, all of which was run behind the scenes by the military, which Mubarak was well connected to, as was his predecessor, and that guy's predecessor.
Obama can’t control what goes on in the United States, where he is the chief administrator of the government, the military, and of one of the two major political parties, let alone what goes on outside the United States. It is fascinating that dalelama thinks otherwise.
When will you progressives get that "money and power" mean nothing to most people of the world? This is about the shape and direction of the *culture* of Egypt, whether secular or religious.
This will take time to unfold. In the meantime, there should be an underground railroad for women and children to leave if they need to. If there are no women to bow down to these radical men, the changes necessary to make a society viable for all will proceed with a little more speed. The comfort of these radicals is based on the currency of women kept uneducated and out of the public eye and in essence imprisoned in society. Without that comfort, perhaps new ways of looking at things can begin to emerge, slowly but almost surely.
So, are any of you Repukes up for another nation building mission over 80 million Egyptians, most of who re poor and don't like us much anyway?
I thought not.
That is why Soetoro shouldn't have thrown Mubarak under the bus. We warned you the radicals were behind it but like an idiot you claimed it was democracy loving secularists. As usual you were wrong.
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Hello Dollylama is dancing as fast as she can.
Is that a Chicago White Sox cap I see in the picture? Another Chicago friend of Obama no doubt.
What happened to the sanguine assessment from Clinton State Dept?
Where are the voices of "tolerance and reason" that we were told are supposed to come to the fore?
Over 50 years of diplomacy flushed down the toilet
Someone earlier doubt on second election
Islamist takeover is one election and done - mullahs rule thereafter
Mubarak was too corrupt and unpopular to be salvaged, unless we were going to do some big military intervention to prop him up. That would have been "counter-productive", as they say.
He has 30 years to make reforms and did nothing, but instead tried to put his son in power as his successor. That didn't work out very well, to put it mildly.
So here we are. I don't believe we have the wisdom or power to do nation building in a country with 80 million people who don't like us at all anyway. All we can do is let them vote in the kind of government they want and deal with it as best we can, but it's not under our control--nor should it be.
Not surprisingly L'il Barry screwed the pooch again by abandoning a trusted ally and pathing the way for homicidal maniacs to take power. Way to go Boy Wonder, way to go....
smart girl, shaygirl13 and Surferlike this.
You're assuming that these events were ever under US control. They were not and are not.
bin Laden and al-Zawahir argued over Al Qaeda's mission. Bin Laden wanted to attack the US to draw us into wars of occupation and economic decline while al-Zawahir wanted to over throw the Egyptian government.
The US played along, and history gave both more than they could have ever imagined.
Egyptians have their voice, we must respect it, even it they decide to not be a secular society, its the voice of the people through their votes
Dr_SwampGas and napoleon27like this.
All the more reason to get out of the Middle East. Let the Chinese face the reality of dealing with oil. Climate change or not, the green economy is the star we need to shoot for. Sustainability = survival.
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We could also mine our own oil and press the foot down on the accelerator for natural grass fracking. As for the Egyptians having their voice and we forget about it, the problem is 911 itself. Societies that are too conservative and too hostile are a threat to many outside their borders. Afghanistan also had "its own voice" right?
Good, I say. Let things be out in the open. Enough with rule by elites who say one thing to the West and something else entirely to their own people. Enough of a tiny Westernized elite sitting atop the masses. Let the Arab people get the government they want. Islam and Arab culture are authoritarian; both demand submission, obedience, conformity and groupthink. Both promote the unchanging rhythm of five trips a day to the mosque to publicly demonstrate one's fealty, unambiguous roles for men and women, with order and morality imposed by the imans. Of course, societies suffocated by religion are not going to be rivals to the dynamic West, in which the individual is lionized, so they will tag along a couple of hundred years behind us. And, if Islamic terror is exported, there's a return address for retaliation: the Aswan Dam.
"are authoritarian; both demand submission, obedience, conformity and groupthink"
Sounds like the Democrat Party.
The majority of the population of Egypt is at or below the poverty level of $2 a day--which means they have trouble even getting basic subsistence. This is also true of Jordan and many other countries in the region.
These Right-wing religious parties always come in and act like the friends of the poor and uneducated, taking care of social and educational needs that the state is too corrupt or inefficient to deal with.
Nor did Mubarak's regime also any secular opposition parties, or labor unions and peasant organizations, so this is what the people turned to out of desperation. Meanwhile the corrupt, wealthy elites plundered the country and ripped off everything they could get their hands on with impunity.
Sound familiar? It should....
Why should it sound familiar? Who are you referencing? You are saying that dumb Egyptians can be bought . Peoples' ideology can't be shaped by a bowl of soup! Everything you say, not just with this posting but also elsewhere, reeks of White Man's Burden. Shame! Shame! Shame!
Swamp: Your words say "no,no". But your worldview and assumptions say "yes,yes".
Joining a Dinner in a Muslim Brotherhood Home
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Revolutions are often messy, and it took Americans seven years from their victory in the American Revolution at Yorktown to get a ratified Constitution. Indonesia, after its 1998 revolution, felt very much like Egypt does today. It endured upheavals from a fundamentalist Islamic current, yet it pulled through.
So a bit of nervousness is fine, but let’s not overdo the hand-wringing — or lose perspective. What’s historic in Egypt today is not so much the rise of any one party as the apparent slow emergence of democracy in the heart of the Arab world.
Will see if the Islamists allow another election again after this first one.
Mr Kristof should probably explain why that did not happen in Russia, Lebanon etc. There are many more failures than succeses in this type of endeavor. US society by the time ot the revolution had been partly democratic for a long while. Each colony had an elected parliment.
Will they stay Democratic? time will tell.
Mid East Democracy after the Arab Spring and BushWars - One man, one vote, one time.
And the good Lord help all of the Christians and Jews remaining in the land.
I swear I am not making this up.....An Islamic cleric said that Women should not be close to or hold bananas or cucumbers because the veggies could stir sexual thoughts .If a woman chooses to eat these foods a man must cut them up into small pieces and serve them...carrots and zucchine are also on the list of items women may not hold or carry openly while in public.
So, there are crazy Muslims too. What a shocker.
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The last word goes to the husband - every time
If the wife disagrees he can beat her to a pulp - with Allah's blessing.
Source: The Daily Beast