Middle East

Islamists in Egypt's tourist spots win surprise support

Tourists at Luxor Temple
Image caption Tourism is a major source of income and employment in Egypt

Egyptians expected Islamists to do well in the first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections.

However, few predicted they would do well in the Red Sea, Luxor and Aswan.

These are governorates where tourism is the main source of income and most people work directly or indirectly in the industry.

The mainstream Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party (FJP) took the lead in all three areas.

In Luxor and Aswan, they were followed by the more fundamentalist, Salafist party, al-Nour. Around the Red Sea, the liberal Egyptian Bloc came second.

Islamist groups have an uneasy view of tourism because it brings in Westerners with conflicting values - towards dress, sexual relationships and alcohol, for example.

Yet it remains a main source of Egypt's national income and foreign currency - employing about three million people.

There is uncertainty over how the Islamists would handle the tourism sector at a time when Egypt's economy is already under strain.

However, during the election campaigns, the Salafists in particular made statements that suggested they could have a detrimental effect.

One al-Nour candidate even suggested that the faces of Egypt's Pharaonic statues should be covered in wax because they were "false idols".

Striking a chord

Many ordinary people in Upper Egypt's tourist resorts do not see the complications.

"The Islamists cater for our needs and understand our traditions while the liberals and secularists are talking to each other on Facebook," says Ali Mohamed, a taxi driver in Aswan.

"We tried socialists, nationalists, leftists, liberals, secularists and military rule and they all let us down and failed to take Egypt forward," he adds.

"So maybe it's about time to try the Islamists, and if they fail, we will vote against them next time."

The Muslim Brotherhood gave assurances with its election campaign. General Guide Muhammad Badie, the senior figure in the movement, visited the ancient Luxor Temple three months ago.

Locals also point out that, as many prominent FJP members themselves work in tourism, they will never ban the industry and close their own businesses.

Many here feel there has been too much attention given to bikini and alcohol bans.

Image caption Many Egyptians employed in the tourist industry see no problem in introducing restrictions

A Youtube video by the Islamist television station al-Hikmah strikes a chord by suggesting this has been a main subject of debate on liberal television channels. It contrasts these with Islamist shows focusing on the lack of clean water in some villages and the spread of diseases.

"I am really provoked by those who are horrified over banning bikinis and alcohol, as if the millions of Egyptians who are under the poverty line have nothing to worry about but these trivial matters," says a housewife, Madiha Nosseir.

Others in Luxor see no problem in introducing some new restrictions.

"No one accepts cancelling tourism because it's the source of our livelihood," says Abdou, who works on a tourism boat. "But I don't want to be forced to do things against my principles, such as serving alcohol or losing my job."

"Tourists will be allowed to bring their alcohol with them and drink it but no Muslim will be forced to serve it to them," says another boat worker, Abdel Aziz Abdel Rasoul.

"Tourists will also have their private beaches so that we won't be forced to look at things we don't approve of. What's wrong with that?"

Religion is a powerful motivating factor in this traditional part of the country.

"What's wrong about voting for the Salafists?" asks a man selling corn by the River Nile. "They are the people of God and they fear God."

"Brainwashed into guilt"

A newly elected Red Sea MP from the Egyptian Bloc, Sameh Makram Ebeid, has been reflecting on the Islamist wins in places that rely on tourism.

"There are several reasons behind this paradox that makes people who work in tourism vote for parties which will hurt their source of income," he says.

"The youth with jobs in tourism have been brainwashed and convinced that their work is against Islam. They have developed a sense of guilt and wanted to get rid of this by voting for the Islamists. It's just like confessing in church."

He suggests that many people voted against the liberals to punish the hotel owners who they believe do not support workers' rights.

"Others voted against the Egyptian Bloc just as a reaction to the Coptic church's support for it," he adds.

Another important factor has been the organisation of the Islamist groups. Both the FJP and al-Nour held rallies in Luxor and Aswan to explain their electoral platforms prior to the parliamentary elections.

They have been able to count on strong grassroots networks built up through charitable services and ideological outreach and have targeted the masses of lower-class voters very effectively.

"The liberals have been totally fragmented," says Mr Ebeid, whose bloc includes new parties formed in just the last few months.

Image caption Egyptians are voting in multi-stage elections for a new parliament

There are signs that the Freedom and Justice Party will be more pragmatic in parliament than its Salafi rivals. It has indicated that it wants a broad-based coalition, not a narrowly focused Islamist front.

The Muslim Brotherhood's gradualist approach to making the country more Islamic should also make it less likely to prioritise legislation to change tourism trends.

However investors - and tourists - may be put off Egypt.

The final stage of parliamentary elections is on 3-4 January.

Among the tourist resorts still to vote are Sharm el-Sheikh in South Sinai and Marsa Matrouh on the north coast.

Again, Islamists are expected to perform well.