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Upstart Egypt fundamentalist party surprises itself with strong turnout

Mona, an Arabic teacher ,holds her white cat outside her shop in the Cairo suburb of ein Shams.

Heidi Levine/Sipa Press/Heidi Levine/Sipa Press

It didn't take Mustafa long to decide which party to support in Egypt's historic democratic election.

"I was raised in a Salafi family," Mustafa explained from his small but busy tailor shop in one of the poor neighbourhoods of Ein Shams, a Cairo suburb. They didn't call themselves Salafists in those days, they were just pious Muslims, he said. And people like them never got involved in politics.

Now 37, Mustafa joined the upstart Salafist's Nour Party when it was formed earlier this year. And Salafists like him are now into politics in a big way.

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Figures released Sunday by Egypt's High Electoral Commission show, not surprisingly, that almost 37 per cent of voters in last week's first regional round of the parliamentary elections voted for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. What was surprising was that more than 24 per cent of the 9.7 million valid ballots were marked Nour (meaning light). It's a major breakthrough for the Salafists, in this, their first election ever. While both seek an Islamic government in Egypt, the Salafists are considered more hard-line than the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Nour rocketed because it has street credibility," said Mustafa, who would give only his first name. "Around here, religion is the No. 1 concern."

And the Nour Party was the No. 1 choice of residents of this struggling community. People here live in the simplest brick and mortar buildings on mostly dirt lanes. They deposit their garbage on the one paved road, hoping someone will pick it up (it usually sits for days), and they crowd around bakery windows waiting to buy state-subsidized bread.

It's a place of little opportunity. Mustafa trained to be an accountant, but ended up mending clothes to make a living.

The Nour fits right in. It's poor too.

Its district headquarters is on the second floor of a dilapidated brick building with no signs pointing the way to it.

"Ours is kind of a counter-campaign," explained Ahmed Salahidin, a Nour official. "The established parties and the media all insult us," he said. "That's how we got known."

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"We don't spend much time in the office," he added. "We're always in the street."

"That's one of the things people like about the Nour," said Mahmoud, 29, a one-time lawyer who now runs a small mobile phone store. "They campaigned on a trinity of issues: food, shelter and clothing. And they try to help people get those things."

It was a winning formula. While the Nour bloc (it includes a few other small Salafi parties) is second to the more moderate Islamists' Freedom and Justice Party, it's the Nour that has made the biggest splash.

"They're the big surprise," says Hisham Kassem, the former publisher of the independent Al Masry al Youm newspaper. "No one saw them coming, not to this degree."

And, the next two rounds of voting in the more rural regions of the country could hand the Salafists an even higher proportion of the vote.

"The people like our simple message," said Salafist cleric Abdel Salam bin Mohamed bin Abdel Karim at his office in Ein Shams. "That message is that the pious practices of the first generations of Muslims are the same practices that should be applied today," he said, referring to practices such as modesty, especially by women; a literal interpretation of the Koran that includes Islamic law, or sharia, and a rejection of violence.

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Egypt's Salafists are not Jihadists, Sheik Abdel Salam insists.

"Yet, still, the elite says we have no culture," complains the cleric. "On the contrary, we have a philosophy that is very cultured, centred on the moral code of the first Muslims."

"And our leaders come from all walks of life," not just the poor and uneducated whom Salafists try to help, said Sheik Abdel Salam, 45, referring to another knock often made against the movement.

However, as strong in belief as they are, even the Salafists were surprised by their own success in this election.

"I had thought we would receive perhaps 10 per cent of the vote, Sheik Abdel Salam said. "But to get more than 20 per cent, especially with the campaign [by the elite]to frighten the people by saying we want to cut off people's hands – that was a surprise."

The Nour Party isn't exactly big on policy, but Ashraf Thabet Saad el-Din, the No. 1 candidate on the Nour list in Alexandria, offered some insight.

In economic matters, he said, the party supports micro-financing to nourish small business, national projects to develop infrastructure and a lowering rather than a raising of taxes. "High taxes lead to corruption," he said.

On the delicate issue of relations with Israel, Mr. Saad el-Din, 47, said the 1979 peace treaty with the Jewish state would be honoured by all Egyptian parties, but a new government "would have the right to fix any unjust part of the treaty, with the consent of both sides."

However, he said, "I can't tell one party to respect a treaty if the other party doesn't respect it."

The parliament being chosen in these elections will be responsible for establishing an assembly to draft Egypt's new democratic constitution.

Sheik Abdel Salam hopes the parliament and assembly will share Salafist views and that the constitution will be "based on Islamic law."

Just where would that leave Egypt's 10 million frightened Christians?

Sheik Abdel Salam laughs at the question. "They have lived under liberal governments, socialist governments, nationalist governments and they have suffered," he said. "The best the Christians have ever been treated was under Islamic rule."

Does that mean they would have the same rights as Muslims?

"Are the rights of Muslims the same as the Christians in Western countries?" he asked in response.

Does that mean Egyptian Christians would not be treated the same?

"They will be treated justly," he said, "but not the same."

"Justice requires that the views of the minority not be forced on the majority," he added, "especially when the religion of the minority is something we don't believe in."

While the Muslim Brotherhood shares the Salafi goal of making Egypt an Islamic state, it prefers to get there via social initiatives, rather than the kind of heavy-handed legislation that Salafists are apt to prefer.

Indeed, the Brotherhood talks openly of preferring a kind of partnership with Egypt's liberal parties, rather than with the more fundamentalist Salafists, to ensure a more balanced constitutional assembly.

Such an approach seems to buck the current trend in the poor districts of Ein Shams.

Mona, a veiled mother of three, said she voted for Nour. "I don't really know why, except everyone else was voting for them," she said. "We all went together; it was like going to a wedding."

Mona's neighbouring cousin is also named Mona and also has three children. But this Mona is a schoolteacher of Arabic. Almost alone among her neighbours, she chose to vote for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.

"I want an Islamic state, too, she explained. "But one with more freedoms."

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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