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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.   

Turnout was much higher in the first round of voting last week – lines stretched around the block at every polling station, while today there were no lines to be seen anywhere. Egypt's election commission originally claimed a historic 62 percent turnout last week, but commission head Abdel Moaz Ibrahim said today the correct number was 52 percent. But that appeared to only count valid votes, and the number would be 59 percent if invalidated votes were added to the tally.

Naggar's party, El Adl, which means "justice," has eschewed the Islamist-secular polarization of parties, trying to take a centrist position to bridge the divide.

“I try to motivate people to vote for a moderate liberal candidate,” says Naggar. But that didn’t keep opponents from using religion in campaigning. He filed charges against Yousri for posting on Facebook the claim that his liberal opponent is supported by the Coptic Christian church. The morning of the vote, some in his district they received text messages saying Naggar is anti-Islam.

'We don't just vote for whoever has a beard'

Yousri says he doesn’t know who spread such rumors. “Religion should not be an important issue for voters,” he says, standing outside a polling station today as he warmly greets voters. An Islamic scholar at Al Azhar University, a seat of Sunni Muslim learning, he has the long beard typical of salafis, and a zabiba, a darkened spot on his forehead from bowing to the ground repeatedly in prayer.

Many of the slow but steady trickle of voters in the middle-class district said they were voting for Naggar as a vote against religious extremism. Some said those who voted for salafis were uneducated. But one of Yousri’s supporters angrily criticized that characterization.

“I voted for Dr. Yousri because he’s educated and knowledgeable, not on a religious basis,” she said. “It's not as if we go vote for whoever has a beard. The religious candidates are all doctors and professors. They’re qualified, good people.”

Other supporters said they voted for Yousri because he is a good Muslim who would apply Islamic law in Egypt. Many salafis have said they would like to implement they're interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia, in Egypt, along with strict gender segregation, codes on women’s dress, and prohibition of alcohol. Yousri is known to be less radical than some salafis. He said Monday that he does not support imposing restrictions on, for example, women’s dress.

“We can call people to Islamic regulations, but we can’t put any obligations on them,” he said.

Brotherhood's revenge?

A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood said Yousri’s “moderate” approach was partially why the group backed the candidate, who is an independent. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) included him on their banners and signs, and he has appeared with FJP candidates at party events.

Naggar says he thinks part of the reason that the Brotherhood backed his opponent is personal: Naggar used to be a member of the organization but the blogger was part of a wave of young members who openly criticized the leadership. He left the organization as his differences with it grew.

“This made the Brotherhood more aggressive against me," he says. “The Brotherhood doesn’t forget if someone leaves them.”

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