Middle East

Islamists battle for votes in rural Egypt

Man walks past the poster for a Salafist al-Nour candidate in Giza (12 December 2011)
Image caption The Salafist al-Nour Party won around a quarter of the votes in the first round

The loudspeaker vans are blaring out the campaign song for the Salafists. These are the hardline Islamists who are the surprise success of these drawn-out parliamentary elections.

Already they have won nearly a quarter of the vote, and now the election has moved to an area that is fertile territory for their blend of politics and religion.

Everyone expected Islamists to do well in these elections.

As predicted, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is in the lead with around a third of the votes cast so far. But the Salafist al-Nour Party is not far behind.

'Not fanatics'

One of the campaigners was keen to stress that his fellow Salafists were not extremists as some have portrayed them.

"These people are not fanatics - as you can see they are just wearing normal clothes like me," he said.

"They are not holding swords in their hands or wearing traditional clothes or riding horses," he added. "They won't introduce Islamic punishments and they are not going to beat people who don't pray."

But it is also true that the Salafists espouse an uncompromising version of Islam.

Several of the leaders have spoken of banning alcohol, and even introducing segregated bathing to Egypt's tourist beaches.

One of the candidates in the Nile Delta, Salah Abdul Mabud, explained what he believed was their attraction.

"We are honest, we are not hypocrites, we are not liars," he said. "We just tell the people what we think and believe."

In some ways, the Salafists resemble the Muslim Brotherhood in their stress on providing services to the people, not just following Islam.

They put an emphasis on improving healthcare, for example.

Image caption The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to portray itself as more moderate and pragmatic

They do have a noticeably different base of support, though.

New image

The Muslim Brotherhood has become a middle-class movement, with a powerbase in the cities. Many poorer Egyptians see them as remote, and perhaps a little too patronising.

So this election has developed into much more than a straight contest between Islamists and secularists.

The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to portray itself as more moderate and pragmatic.

"We are not interfering in the relationship between a person and God," said Amr Darag, an engineer who is its candidate in one west Cairo district.

"Islam doesn't force people to adopt a religion, so how can we force people to wear a hijab? Personal freedom is a core of our programme. Our intention is to spread values by giving a good model rather than imposition."

That does little to reassure many liberal Egyptians.

Many are sceptical of the new mild-mannered image being put forward by the Muslim Brotherhood.

But so far, secular and liberal parties are running a poor third in the election. The new parliament looks set to be dominated by Islamists.

However, the new dynamics of Egyptian politics are not that simple.

The Muslim Brotherhood has already allied themselves with several secular parties.

And it is by no means certain that the FJP and al-Nour would form a united bloc in parliament.

Promises

As so often in the Muslim World, the issue of banning alcohol could become a litmus test.

Image caption Some Salafist leaders want to introduce segregated bathing to Egypt's tourist beaches

While the Salafists are united on the issue, the Muslim Brotherhood gives more mixed messages.

The Muslim Brotherhood's more pragmatic supporters know that an outright ban on alcohol could decimate Egypt's vital tourist trade, and further damage the already faltering economy.

Joining the Salafists as they tour villages in the Nile Delta, it is soon clear that ideology is not the first concern of their supporters.

After years of being neglected by the Egyptian government, they want politicians who deliver on their promises.

One villager explained that she would be voting for the Salafists.

But, she explained: "What we really need is a storehouse for cooking gas canisters."

Those are the sort of mundane challenges that will face whoever wins this tortuously drawn-out election.