Will Egypt's Islamists Win the Upcoming Elections?

More than half the country’s voters live in its tradition-bound rural areas. Photos: Myriam Abdelaziz / Redux

“Back soon,” says the sign outside the hardware store. “In mosque.” The flimsy shutters have been pulled down and secured with a small padlock. The door behind them is covered with handwritten notices: “Cell phones charged.” “Axes for sale.” Signs dangle in the Egyptian desert wind, some emblazoned with Quranic quotations. “God is the light in heaven and on earth,” proclaims one painted slab of wood. “Curtain rods,” says another.

The guidebook says there’s little reason to visit Qena. That may be true in ordinary times, but with voting scheduled to begin Nov. 28 in Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, this scruffy market town, more than 450 kilometers up the Nile from Cairo, offers a window into Egypt’s future. Because more than half the country’s 85 million people live in tradition-bound communities like Qena, far from the big cities, there’s widespreadconcern that the rural vote could propel the country’s hardline Islamists to a parliamentary majority. Qena itself was off-limits to most travelers in the mid-1990s, when the Nile Valley was the center of an Islamist insurgency in which more than 1,000 people were killed.

But that’s in the distant past for most people in Qena; they’re focused on the upcoming elections. “The most important thing is for Egypt to be ruled by Islam,” says an ambulance driver at the fishmonger’s shop. “The most important thing is that the state will not be based on Islam,” says the head of the local elementary school as he buys a copy of the Cairo daily Al Gomhuria. “I’ll vote if one of my relatives stands for office,” says a veteran who lost a leg in the 1973 war against Israel.

Not everyone in Qena speaks so freely. “It’s best to hide from the wind,” is as much as the local tailor will say. “Keep close to the wall when it starts blowing.” Above the dress patterns that cover the wall, a crucifix hangs. Egypt’s Copts, the indigenous Christians who are 10 percent of the country’s population, have been targets of violence since early spring. In March a self-declared Salafist (a hardline Muslim fundamentalist) attacked a Christian on the street in Qena and cut off his ear. In April, the caretaker regime’s nomination of a Christian to be Qena’s provincial governor set off days of furious demonstrations until he stepped down. Since then several churches have been torched across the country. The burning of one in Aswan touched off protests in Cairo last month that left more than two dozen dead, almost all of them Christians.

The tailor’s young apprentice speaks up. “Yahya next door is a Salafist,” he announces. “I’ve known him since I was a child. He’s the kindest man on earth.” The Salafists, who were persecuted mercilessly under the Mubarak regime, regard their version of the faith as Islam in its purest form, as it was practiced by the prophet’s first followers. Since the fall of the dictatorship, a new generation of politically oriented Salafist imams has emerged, and several Salafist parties have been formed.

The apprentice darts around his sewing machine and beckons me outside. “My name is Hani Tamer Halim, and I am not afraid,” he says. He extends his hand, revealing a small tattoo on the inside of his wrist: a Coptic cross. “There’s Yahya, back from the mosque,” he says. The bearded young man undoes the lock on the hardware store next door and raises the shutters. Customers begin trickling into the shop after us, asking for nails, a saw, a particular kind of screw. “What’s your best seller?” I ask Yahya. He holds up a lock. “This. Now people want two or even three locks on their doors. Times are uncertain. Crime is up.” He smiles. “Fear is good for business!”

Still, the fall of the dictatorship has brought him something he values far more than a boom in home-security hardware. Now he’s free to say what he wants, go where he wants, look the way he wants. “I was taken into custody several times because of my beard,” he tells me. As he laughs and chats with his customers, he delivers a capsule lecture on Salafism. “You must believe, pray, and live by the example of the prophet,” he says. “The thief must have his hand cut off, the one who drinks will burn in hell, the adulterer must be killed, and women should stay at home.”

“How many nails does one have to steal to warrant losing a hand?” I ask. “That’s for the mufti to say,” he answers. “Not someone as ignorant as I. But come to our meeting tonight. There will be three imams from Cairo.”

A half-moon shines on Abdur Rahman Square, where a crowd of young men sit on the ground in front of a speaking platform. You know they’re Salafists by their distinctive facial hair: untrimmed beard and shaved upper lip. “This is how the prophet had it,” Yahya tells me. “He shaved off his mustache to stand out from the Christians. Those were simple times, when you could tell a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim from their beards.” Few of the beards in the square are very long. The revolution is young.

I speak to one of the young men. “We’re the ones to benefit most from this revolution,” says Mahmoud Hossain. “We are free now, and to me, freedom means freedom to pray.” He used to be a law student, he says, but after three years he quit. Now he studies Islamic law instead: Sharia. “The country should follow the Quran,” he tells me. “Everything is there.” He stands back, his eyes averted. “I soon have my exams,” he explains. “I’d better not look at an unveiled woman. It could distract me.” Besides, he says, “the eyes are the problem. Have you ever heard of a blind rapist?”

A bearded physician makes an announcement from the stage. “Being a Muslim means providing help,” he tells the crowd. “There’s a van behind you where you can donate blood. Sick children need it. Your help will be rewarded both in this life and in the afterlife.” As donors step forward, I ask if he’s a Salafist. “Of course,” he says. “It’s the purest form of Islam. Can you smell the sweet freedom? We’re in charge now!” But how can a doctor condone amputating the hands of people who are caught stealing? “No problem,” he replies. “There is so much choice in artificial limbs nowadays.”

Three tall, handsome men in flowing white djellabas arrive. The first imam takes the microphone and begins: “I want to talk to you about women. They are the most precious—our mothers, our wives, our sisters. Woman is man’s other half. She enjoys the same rights, but is free from arduous duties such as military service. A man must pray in the mosque five times a day. For a woman, it is better to pray at home. That way she can stay inside and be with her children. If she has to venture outside, she must be covered, conceal the form of her body and her hair.”

“Imagine a box of chocolates,” the physician tells me in a whisper. “Some are wrapped in paper, others not. Which ones would you choose? The wrapped ones, of course. They are clean, safe. No fly has sullied them, no dust, no contamination, no bacteria.”

The unsullied sweets are sequestered in a tent nearby, watching on a big video screen, their veils lying beside them. “In America, if a man spends $100, a woman must spend $100, too,” the imam continues. “Our women are relieved of this. She’s free. She doesn’t need money.” A young girl in the tent whispers, “It is so lovely to be a Muslim.” On the screen, the three men from Cairo finally leave the stage. A cordon of guards links hands to hold back the enthusiastic crowd. Like rock stars, the imams duck into a shiny black car and are driven away.

Like most side alleys in Qena, this one is overflowing with garbage. There is no sign or bell on the door, but a man we ask says, sure, they’re up there. The entrance is dark, the stairs full of sand blown in by the wind. On the fifth floor, a quote from the Quran shows we’re at the right place. A gaunt man in a djellaba ushers us into a sparsely furnished office. The desk is empty except for a green flag with two crossed swords and the words “Be prepared”: the emblem of Egypt’s original Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. The group was founded in 1928 with the aim of creating an Islamic state, and after a lifetime in the shadow lands between legal and illegal, its goal remains the same.

Muhammed Abd El Nabi rises from his chair to greet me. As head of the Qena chapter of the Brotherhood’s newly established political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, he proudly hands me the party’s new program, just arrived from the printers. The sky-blue cover shows a dove nibbling at an ear of wheat, with no sign of the Brotherhood’s crossed swords. The Cairo press has criticized the party’s platform for being vague and noncommittal.

Abd El Nabi himself has never been one to play things safe. A member of the Brotherhood since his youth, the former teacher spent several years in jail under the dictatorship. His fingernails were pulled out; he suffered torture by electrical shock and was hung upside down, deprived of sleep, and beaten. Now he’s running for a seat in Parliament, and he’s out to win. He says he’ll work to keep subsidized prices for bread and to stop profiteers from gouging consumers on cooking gas, but his campaign promises go well beyond that: “We also want to give away state-owned land to young people. They will need water, so we need better irrigation.” He’s likely to go far with his appeal to the basics: Bread. Water. Land. God. Still, nothing of any importance happens in Upper Egypt without the clans’ say-so. I ask Abd el Nabi how his party will win their support. “The clans?” He grins. “That’s us!”

Still, Freedom and Justice won’t be running unopposed in Qena. The similarly named Justice Party, founded by some of the young Egyptians who led the Tahrir Square revolution, has opened its own campaign office. The chairs are brand new, not yet unwrapped from their plastic covers. The town’s party leadership consists of three students who take turns in the chairman’s seat. “Qena is a rough place, but I still think there’s room here for liberal values,” says Ahmed Hussain, a lanky 21-year-old law student in jeans and a red Lacoste shirt. “Lack of education is the main problem, along with people who answer every question with ‘Allah tells us’ or ‘The Quran says.’ We need politics that attract investments. We want a secular political system. Religion and Sharia are not the answers.”

I ask about his campaign strategy. “We talk to friends and family,” he says. “The clans are important. I’ve started with my own. Do you want to visit my village?”

Horse-drawn carts become frequent sights as we approach the village of Naqâda. “The revolution has changed nothing here,” the young man says. His family, which claims descent from the prophet’s closest friend, Abu Bakr, traces its presence in the Nile Valley back a thousand years.

“There are two strong families in my village,” Hussain tells me. “There have been disagreements between them for years. It started with one man losing an eye in a fight. His family took revenge by killing a man, causing imbalance.” I ask how the feud can be resolved. “One more has to lose an eye, and one has to be killed,” he says. But doesn’t this trouble him as a law student? “There’s nothing I can do to change it,” he says. “It’s just the way it is.”

When we reach the village, members of Ahmed’s family are waiting for us, clad in the ubiquitous flowing white robes. Several are farmers; one is a teacher, another the village lawyer. The family owns a whole street and a grand villa. The library is stocked with books from floor to ceiling, and ancestral pictures cover the walls. In the garden, amid voluptuous cascades of flowers, we sip tea and talk. “If a woman from a powerful family walks in the street, no one from outside her family may look at her,” says Hussain. “If they do, they will be punished, even killed.” I decide to test his professed liberalism. “What if somebody looked at your sister?” I ask. “I would at least make sure he got beaten up,” he tells me. “Would you kill him?” I ask. “Killing is never easy,” he says. “But if a woman brings shame on her family, she must be disposed of.” The women of the house are visible in silhouette through its open windows.

As the sun sets, Ahmed’s grandfather arrives. “Nasser was good,” he declares, still longing for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died more than 40 years ago. “We need a new Nasser,” the old man says. He snorts at the mention of his grandson’s pick for president, Mohamed ElBaradei. “Too weak!” the old man says, unimpressed by the Nobel Peace Prize ElBaradei won in 2005 for his work as International Atomic Energy Agency chief. “Remember, we are the sons of the pharaohs! We need a tough ruler.”

The schoolteacher checks his watch and speaks up. “There’s a game,” he announces, “a soccer game I really would like to see.” Together we walk into the village, where we find local men gathered around a little TV set balanced on two soft-drink crates. We see a green grass field, some pale, flickering figures, and a tiny dot: the ball. The sons of the pharaohs crowd around the screen, which suddenly goes black. Then the lights quit. We are oh, so far from Cairo.

Åsne Seierstad is the author of  The Bookseller of Kabul and The Angel of Grozny. She lives in Oslo.