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Islam and the Egyptian Presidential Election

Posted: May 07, 2012

 CAIRO -– It is a few minutes before midnight on Friday and calm is far from being able to make its way back to the street of this Egyptian capital. Teargas fills the air and the shrill sound of ambulance sirens fills the neighborhood surrounding the Defense Ministry, as hundreds of protestors seek shelter, and hundreds of military policemen hunt high and low for them.

Egypt’s military junta had about three hours earlier declared a curfew over this neighborhood, but few of the citizens who started coming here to protest the April 26 decision of the Higher Election Presidential Commission, a committee of judges tasked with monitoring and supervising the poll, observed it.

“Either they bring Hazem Abu Ismail back to the presidential race or we will not stop protesting,” said one of the supporters of the Salafist hopeful, who was excluded from the list of presidential candidates because his mother had an American citizenship. “This is not a war for Abu Ismail but one for Islam.”
In a few weeks, Egypt will elect a president for the first time since a popular uprising toppled a three-decade-old authoritarian regime under Hosni Mubarak. Violence is engulfing the country, claiming lives and spreading fear.

Egypt’s Islamist forces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and their more conservative Salafist peers, are sharpening their fighting tools and preparing their well-articulated arguments for what seems to be an imminent clash, one that ostensibly takes center stage in the presidential election. And this clash is sure to go beyond the election to define the direction of how Egyptians will rule themselves.

“The Islamists want to radicalize this country by applying Islamic law, but the military will never be happy with this,” said Sharif Hafez, a liberal political analyst. “Islamists know that their chances in the next presidential election are dim, hence [they] desire to turn the table on everybody.”

The Head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which took over after President Mubarak stepped down last year, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi had declared that the army would return to its barracks when power is handed over to an elected civilian president.

But Islamists who, having gotten rid of Mubarak’s fetters, want to dominate Egypt’s political life, like Assem Abdel Maguid, a senior member of Jamaa Islamia, an Islamist organization that masterminded the assassination of the late president Anwar Sadat in 1981. He had recently turned to politics. “Those who say the chances of the Islamists in the presidential election are weak are mistaken,” he asserted.

Two of the three frontrunners are Islamists. Should an Islamist become president on May 24, it would be a small step in a major move to do away with Egypt’s secular political and economic system. Egypt’s Islamists are pained to see their popularity spiraling down so soon after they managed to win a majority in the two chambers of the Egyptian parliament.

The economic and political utopia the Islamists had promised voters has not happened, with unemployment and poverty rising, and parliament proving an extreme failure in addressing the needs of ordinary people.

“I will never vote for these people again,” said Akram Mahmud, a university student from Cairo. “They do nothing but lie and waste our time.”

But this is perhaps why Islamists are desperate to form a government. They accuse the current government of intentionally neglecting the needs of the public and depleting the nation’s financial resources in ways that discredit parliament.

On Friday, most of the people who clashed with military policemen outside the Defense Ministry were bearded Islamist executives. They pelted the military policemen with stones, even as they chanted “Alahu Akbar” (God is Great). Some of them retreated as determined soldiers kept them away from the offices of the military council, but others surged forward. More than 300 demonstrators were injured and one army soldier was killed.

The demonstrators seemed to be settling old scores with the military, which has all along opposed the formation of a government by Islamists.

People like Hafez, who said he had received death threats from Islamists for his severe criticism of them, think the next few days will be full of surprises.

“I do not think the military will hand Islamists this country on a silver platter as these Islamists expect,” Hafez said. “They [the military] said Egypt’s secular system is a red line and in saying this they do not joke.”

This is why other analysts, including leftist writer Abdullah el-Sinawy, think the big confrontation between the military and the Islamists is yet to come when Egypt embarks on writing its new constitution.

So far, Islamists have demonstrated a keen desire to dominate the constitution-writing panel, something that has been strongly opposed by liberals, secularists and leftists like el-Sinawy.

“I think the major confrontation is yet to come,” el-Sinawy said. “This is why I say to all political forces, ‘your unity is the only way out (for) this country, or we can find ourselves locked in a civil war.’”

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