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Egypt's Islamists Stress Pragmatism

  • Elizabeth Arrott

The extent of Egypt's Islamist parties' appeal will come into clearer focus in coming weeks, as results from the nation's first post-revolution elections come in. So far, expressions of support have been strong, especially in areas outside the capital. Fayoum, Egypt, a bastion of conservative Islam, now appears yearning for practical solutions to the country's problems.

For an apparently tranquil town, Fayoum has a violent past. Killers for one of the most extreme Islamist groups Egypt has ever known came from here. But Gama'a Islamiya is showing a more moderate face these days.

Mohammed Marzouk, a spokesman for Gama'a, is running for a seat under its Construction and Development party banner. Marzouk says that Egypt needs a modern state, with an Islamist background. He promises his party will solve the problems of the country, and his constituents, "at the highest level."

The candidate for a group accused of plotting President Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination and of carrying out the 1997 massacre of tourists at Luxor, now stresses pragmatic concerns. Marzouk discusses plans to make laws creating "social justice" so that there would no longer be businesses where one employee earns 300,000 Egyptian pounds, while another makes only 300.

Though Gama'a Islamiya renounced violence in 2003, the shift from murder to income redistribution might seem impossibly abrupt. But many in this hard-hit oasis town are taking the group at its word.

"You shouldn't be afraid of Islam. You should never be afraid of Islam, because if the Islamists follow the Quran there will be no problem," noted voter Hussein el Sayed.

But some do foresee problems, in particular the country's minority Christians. Marzouk offers words of reassurance and says Christians will not be persecuted, and that his party will give them their rights just like the Muslims. The law, he adds, will be applied equally.

As he campaigns though, the sincerity of the Gama'a candidate's words in general are called into question. Marzouk greets rival candidate Essam Herazah just as the Wafd politician is getting ready for an interview.

Herazah accuses Marzouk of making nice for the cameras, but meanwhile having his campaign posters torn down. Marzouk denies that's going on, and the Wafd candidate does not press the point.

Herazah even makes concessions to the religious wave, adapting his party's liberal foundation for the audience in Fayoum. The Wafd, he says, will keep away from the idea of liberalism and secularism.

It is a new era in Egypt, with the Wafd moving away from modernity, and Gama'a Islamiya moving toward it, and the fight for an acceptable middle ground, at least rhetorically, is underway.

Egypt's Elections

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