Wherever he tours, crowds mob Abu Ismail as if he were a pop-star.
His smile and beard, trimmed in a crescent, beam from posters plastered everywhere. In Mansoura, a city in the Nile Delta, women in niqabs, the preferred Salafist dress that hides female faces behind black cloth, ride side-saddle on motorbikes waving posters proclaiming their love.
Hundreds of other Egyptians have tossed hats in the ring for presidential elections, due on May 23. Among the half-dozen front-runners several are, like Abu Ismail, Islamists. But none packs either his Salafist radicalism or his charisma.
Abu Ismail’s heady mix of Islam and nationalism promises to “liberate” Egypt from subservience to Israel and the West. His domestic agenda scares the tourism industry that earns a vital chunk of Egypt’s foreign revenues.
Belly-dancers would be banished. Foreign tourists could still booze in bikinis, provided they were quarantined from Egyptians. The legal age of marriage would be lowered to puberty, as in the Prophet’s time.
Until recently, Western diplomats expected the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s Islamist mainstream, to stay politely out of the race and pave the way for a secular president. Now some see it as the only way to stop Abu Ismail’s rise.
They positively sighed with relief when the Brotherhood’s number two, Khairat al-Shater, a 62-year-old self-made millionaire, backtracked on a previous pledge and entered the race.
On paper he should fare well: the Brotherhood took almost twice as many seats — close to 47% — as the Salafists in the parliamentary elections that ended in January. Yet the announcement surprised many as a risky gamble.
Fear that a secret society such as the Brotherhood might capture the presidency as well as parliament could boost rival candidates, among them Amr Moussa, the former Secretary General of the Arab League, who led in early polls, and Abdel Moneim Abolfotoh, a former senior Brother who was expelled for choosing to vie for the presidency without permission from the Brotherhood’s leadership. Although a victory for Shater could burden him and his brethren with responsibility for Egypt’s sorry state, defeat would shatter myths about the Brotherhood’s invincibility.
Muslim Brothers say Shater’s surprise candidacy reflects growing frustration with Egypt’s ruling generals. Although theoretically due to exit politics after the election, the generals have rejected parliamentary demands to dismiss the army-appointed interim cabinet, led by a grey veteran of Mubarak’s governments.
The Brothers accuse the government of deliberately mishandling the economy so as to turn public opinion against the Islamist-led parliament. –– Economist.
The suspicion is that the army has no intention of surrendering real power to an Islamist-dominated parliament, and may be hatching plans to tilt the presidential election to its advantage.
Many generals probably want to retreat to the barracks, provided they keep the priviledges gained during six decades of veiled military rule. But some are showing an appetite for politics.
When Cairo’s transport workers recently went on strike, the army supplied buses sporting posters with a soldier holding a baby, above the caption, “The people and army are one.”
The military council also issued a statement warning the Islamists not repeat “past mistakes”, an apparent reference to the Brotherhood’s brief honeymoon with the generals who overthrew King Farouk in 1952, which soon ended with a ban and a spate of military trials.
A cool and calm manager who spent many years in Mubarak’s prisons, Shater had until recently shied from criticising the army. Abu Ismail, by contrast, has spent the past year vowing to throw out the generals, once and for all.
Even detractors are impressed. In the Salafists’ Alexandrian stronghold of Amud el-Sawari, Christians and Muslims alike say an hour’s ranting by a sheikh during Friday prayers is an acceptable price to pay for the security their courteous followers in white tunics bring.
“They sweep the streets, and ask if you need money. Their doctors treat Christians and Muslims alike for nothing, they never force you to pray or grow a beard,” says a clean-shaven father of three unveiled teenage daughters in Bulaq, a poor suburb of Cairo. “Don’t believe what you read in the papers.” –– Economist.