In Egyptian canal city, voters lean toward Islamists

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 14, 2011 

WORLD NEWS EGYPT-ELECTION 5 MCT

Sheikh Hafez Salama, the conservative 86 year-old leader of popular resistence in the city of Suez during the Egyptian-Israeli war, visited 30 polling stations after casting his vote.

MOHANNAD SABRY — Mohannad Sabry/MCT

SUEZ, Egypt — Sheikh Hafez Salama, 86, won't say which party he voted for Wednesday in the second round of Egypt's parliamentary elections, but it's a safe bet that he picked fellow Islamists.

Salama, revered here as a resistance icon since the days of British rule, has battled and outlived many an authoritarian Egyptian regime. When the latest autocrat — former President Hosni Mubarak — fell last winter, the venerated religious scholar kept this canal city from chaos with his vigilante patrols, mediation in armed disputes and cut-rate food staples.

Now that Suez, like the rest of Egypt, is stumbling back to its feet after the uprising, it's time for Salama to cede some of his broad unofficial authority to a new crop of politicians chosen by the people. The Islamist victory of nearly 70 percent of seats in the first round of polls, Salama said, shows that most voters share his view that there's only one clear path for Egypt's renaissance.

"Islam is our only refuge, the only thing that can save us now," Salama said. "The people have woken up."

Results aren't expected until later this week, after a second day of voting Thursday in Egypt's staggered, three-part electoral system. However, analysts already are predicting that Islamists' performance in the more rural second round will meet or exceed their easy sweep of the first phase, which included Cairo, Alexandria and other urban centers.

The polls will seat the first post-Mubarak parliament, whose main task is to pick a panel to draft a new constitution. Beyond that, it's still unclear how extensive parliament's mandate will be, given the reluctance of Egypt's ruling military council to fully empower a body that most likely will be dominated by Islamists.

Frictions come and go between the Islamists and the powerful generals, but for now both are focused on smooth, on-schedule elections despite continued protests over the military's progress on reforms.

Human rights advocates condemned a two-year prison sentence handed down Wednesday to blogger Maikel Nabil for charges including insulting the military and disturbing the peace in a case that stems from his controversial online postings. Nabil is more than 100 days into a hunger strike to protest his trial in a military court. He's among some 12,000 civilians put to military trial since Mubarak's ouster.

Nabil's long-anticipated sentence was a blow to activists demanding full freedom of speech and other democratic pillars, but the news didn't even register in the far-flung, mostly impoverished Egyptian communities voting Wednesday. Voters said their core issues are much more basic than liberals' calls for vaguely defined "freedoms."

Mindful of the disconnect, liberal politicians in Suez said they were tweaking their campaigns, adding more face-to-face interaction with voters to counter what they called an Islamist smear campaign that paints them as anti-Islam. They lack the deep roots and organization skills of their religious opponents, however, and are finding it very difficult to compete with self-proclaimed keepers of the faith.

"They go around spreading fliers saying to vote Islamically," complained Ahmed Homos, local coordinator for the liberal Egyptian Bloc. "Are we not Muslim? We're also Muslim!"

Suez voters described their priorities as job creation, union-style protections for factory workers, better schools and sewers, a rehabilitated police force and accessible health care. More than anything, they said, Suez seeks a reversal of Mubarak's longtime policy of steering canal profits out of the city and bringing in workers from other places instead of giving work to locals. Islamists, many said, represented the best chance for a fresh start.

"I've spent all I had to educate my three boys and three girls, and they're all unemployed," said Ramadan Abdul Magd, 63, whose poverty was evident in his tattered clothing and the plastic tape that held his blackened teeth in place. "It's time now to seek God's support."

It was rare to find a liberal voter, and for many at the polls the choice boiled down to deciding whether they'd pick a conservative or ultraconservative Islamist to represent them in parliament.

The two powerhouse Islamist forces are the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Nour Party, which belongs to the more rigid Salafi movement.

In Suez, both groups were visibly involved in the electoral process, serving as security guards and election monitors among other roles, eager to replicate the successes of round one: 47 percent of the seats for FJP, about 21 percent for Nour, and the liberal Egyptian Bloc a distant third with 9 percent.

"People here like the FJP because it's organized and powerful and everyone's impressed with its performance, but at the same time, people worry about one party taking over everything again, like Mubarak's party," said Saleh Ibrahim, 51, who voted for the Brotherhood's party nonetheless.

(McClatchy special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed.)

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