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Egypt election runoff: Tahrir Square activist vs. Islamic scholar

As Egyptians go to the polls today for runoff races, the battle in Cairo's Nasr City neighborhood offers a window into the national race for second behind the Muslim Brotherhood.

By Correspondent / December 5, 2011

An Egyptian woman votes at a polling center during the first day of runoffs in Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 5. A trickle of Egyptian voters headed to the polls Monday for two days of runoffs in the country's first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a balloting in which Islamist parties already captured an overwhelming majority of the votes in the first round.

Nasser Nasser/AP

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Cairo

As Egyptians went to the polls again today to decide runoffs in the parliamentary elections, two candidates facing off in a Cairo district illustrate the national battle for second place behind the Muslim Brotherhood.

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On one side in Cairo's Nasr City neighborhood is Mustafa El Naggar, a young revolutionary who helped organize the throngs of protesters in Tahrir Square earlier this year that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak.

On the other is Mohamed Yousri, an Islamic scholar who adheres to a strict strain of Islam known as salafism – much like what is practiced in Saudi Arabia.

Salafi candidates like Mr. Yousri took about 25 percent of the vote last week, stunning many liberal candidates who had hoped their secular parties would take the second-largest percentage of parliamentary seats after the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.

While the victory of the Brotherhood, Egypt's most organized group, was expected, the handy and unexpected success of the salafi parties has sparked alarm among some liberal and non-Muslim Egyptians, and amplified the religious tone of the elections. Some Islamist parties have been using religious language to attract voters, and some have accused liberal parties of casting themselves simply as the anti-Islamist choice, using fear instead of platforms to attract voters.

Those positions are now deepening as Egypt moves toward the next two rounds of elections for the lower house of parliament, which will be more difficult for liberal parties because it involves more rural and conservative areas.

“I am 120 percent afraid of the salafis,” says Ehab Emil, a Nasr City resident who works as a tour guide, after casting his ballot. Mr. Emil says that he knew little about Naggar, but voted for him because he was running against a salafi.

“We care about the future of Egypt,” he says. “We are against salafis. All the normal people are afraid that they won so many seats. I think today many people will vote for Naggar out of fear.”

Uphill battle against free meat and minibuses

Mr. Naggar cofounded El Adl, a liberal-leaning party, after the uprising that swept Mubarak from power in February. In between greeting voters as his campaign team toured polling stations to watch for fraud today, he expressed concern about the low turnout. That helps his opponent, who is backed by the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood, called the Ikhwan in Arabic.

“Ikhwan and salafis have very good organizational capabilities. They can mobilize people, especially in poor areas. We can’t do that,” he says. While visiting a poor area in his district Sunday, he said, he found minibuses organized by his opponent ready to transport poor voters to the polls. He said residents told him they were promised meat – which many Egyptians cannot afford – if they participated.   

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