Egypt holds parliamentary elections this month and many people expect the outcome to be similar to recent polls in Tunisia, where an Islamist party won the largest bloc of seats.
Nearly a dozen official parties with ties to Islamist groups have sprung up in Egypt since the summer, and most analysts predict they will do well.
Gamal Ashry is one parliamentary candidate. He’s with the Freedom and Justice Party, the political offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world’s largest and oldest Islamist movement.
The crowded and impoverished Talbeya neighborhood in southwestern Cairo is one Ashry hopes to represent.
He estimates that a half-million people live in the enclave, where there are more potholes than pavement. He says most of the working-class residents there have a hard time getting services like water, electricity and gas.
Ashry says he and the Freedom and Justice Party do what they can to help. During a recent fuel shortage in Talbeya, Ashry says the party delivered gas-filled canisters to residents for one-fifth the price of what was being charged on the black market. They also purchased schoolbooks and uniforms for neighborhood children.
Such charitable outreach has helped the Muslim Brotherhood build strong support in Talbeya and across Egypt over the years, even when the Islamist group was banned by previous regimes.
But even with the brotherhood now officially recognized, Ashry feels his victory is far from guaranteed.
Islamist Parties On The Rise
To increase his chances, Ashry says his party cut a rare deal with the local branch of an ultraconservative Salafi Islamist party, which is also popular in Talbeya. He is running for one seat in the neighborhood and the Salafi candidate for another, with each party pledging to support the other.
In interviews, brotherhood and Salafi officials say they are not worried about rivalries in the Islamist camp because they are confident there are enough pro-Islamist voters for all.
Analysts say it’s too soon to know whether that’s true, especially given the campaign season has barely started. Critics say Egyptian Islamists lack the sophistication of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, which spent nearly eight months shoring up its base before winning more than 40 percent of the seats in the Tunisian constitutional assembly.
Nevertheless, Islamist parties in Egypt have a reason for optimism, says Khaled Fahmy, chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo.
“The streets, so to speak, has very strong Islamist leanings, so they feel they have potential support. They feel they can have a very good chance of forming the majority in Parliament,” Fahmy says.
Most of Egypt’s Islamist parties were recognized by the military rulers and permitted to field candidates in the upcoming elections.
Among them are the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, which carried out dozens of terrorist attacks in Egypt in the1990s before its leaders renounced violence. There are also several Salafi parties, whose members shunned pro-democracy demonstrations and elections during the three decades of rule by President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in February.
Surgeon Emad Abdel Ghafour, who heads Nour, or “Light,” the largest Salafi party, explains their change of heart.
“We see that a wide spectrum of Egyptian people embrace Islamic and Salafi trends,” he says. “They deserve to have someone in government representing their interests.”
Still, Moderation Expected
Amr Darrag, a civil engineering professor at Cairo University who heads the brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Giza, acknowledges that some people in Egypt and in the West may find the growing Islamist political presence unnerving.
But he predicts that Egypt will remain a moderate state even if voters elect an Islamist majority.
“The perfect recipe is to allow democracy, allow freedom, and you’ll get rid of most of the problems. Of course you still have extremists, but this will be easily handled by the political powers in the society,” Darrag says.
Mahmoud Salem, a leading online voice in the Egyptian uprising better known as “Sandmonkey,” agrees with Darrag’s call to let voters decide. Salem, who is a candidate with the centrist Free Egyptians Party, says that’s because he believes many of the Islamist candidates will turn voters off.
He points to a recent incident in the port city of Alexandria where Salafis linked to the Nour Party used sheets and ropes to cover up a famous statue of Zeus with bare-breasted mermaids.
“If you are the kind of party that wants to cover up mermaid statues I don’t think you are going to do well in governance,” Salem says.
Party officials say there was no order to cover the statue and that they are investigating the incident.