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Identity, not policy, driving the new Egypt

Amr Nabil / AP

Egyptian representatives of candidates and army soldiers guard ballot boxes on a vehicle as anti-riot policemen line up in front of supporters outside a counting center in Giza, Egypt on Thursday.

DOKKI, EGYPT – Mona Al Shabrawy came into her daughter’s room and eagerly woke her up Wednesday morning. The gynecologist was getting ready to go vote in the second round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, but there was one problem: She didn’t know who to vote for; her instinct was to turn to her daughter, Aisha, for advice.

Aisha Al Shabrawy has been closely following the evolving political landscape in post-revolution Egypt. Party pamphlets and candidate manifestos litter the family home. Aisha took to the streets during Egypt’s revolution in February of year, and since then, she has been to many other protests in Tahrir Square.


She has her finger on the pulse on the debate raging across Egypt over the role of religion in politics, which grew more intense after the first round of elections that saw Islamist parties decimate their liberal counterparts and win close to 60 percent of the seats. Aisha didn’t hold back when suggesting to her mother how she should make her choice.

“I told her to vote for the Kotla,” Aisha said. “Kotla” is the Arabic word for “Bloc” – it is short form among Egyptians these days referring to the liberal leaning bloc of political parties running together.

A few hours later, Aisha cast her own ballot at a polling station in Agouza, a town just outside Cairo, for the first time in her life. The second round of parliamentary elections were held Wednesday and Thursday in nine out of Egypt’s 27 provinces.  She voted for the liberals at a women-only polling station.

It was the culmination of a personal journey for this 31-year-old aspiring jewelry designer that highlights how identity is shaping Egypt’s new political landscape more so than policy. And at a time when results from Egypt’s first round of elections suggest the country as a whole is shifting toward conservative Islamist parties, Aisha is moving in the opposite direction.

Story of an ex-Islamist
At the age of 18, Aisha noticed she was increasingly at odds with what she considered to be the materialistic and superficial society around her. Aisha began to find comfort and solace among her more religious friends and ultimately was drawn to the appeal of Islamic preachers like Amr Khaled, who like many other Muslim preachers has amassed a huge online and public following.

Amr Nabil / AP

Egyptian women read a candidates list at a polling center in Giza, Egypt on Thursday.

She began attending religious lessons and meetings that were geared toward the young. “They knew about the young generation, they were very practical and pragmatic in appealing to the youth,” she said.

By the age of 21, Aisha had embraced the ultra-conservative teachings of the Salafi movement. Many Salafis say their “interpretation of Islam is the correct interpretation.” They believe in “the righteous ancestors” of Islam, or as known in Arabic, the “Salaf el Salah.”

For the next two years, she was a self-described Salafist, a pious individual who loved wearing the Niqab – or full-face veil. She appreciated the sense of community enjoyed by Salafists and their straightforwardness about their beliefs and viewpoints.

But Aisha also began to see rigidity in how Salafis practiced their religion. She felt the Salafis were putting too much of an emphasis on the external image and behavior that should be projected by its followers, rather than on the spiritual journey inside. They would use guilt and fear to persuade or dissuade their followers from certain actions. It was all beginning to take its toll on how Aisha viewed herself.

Nearly five years after beginning to embrace Salafist ideology and practices, she began to withdraw from the movement and its associations, opting instead to focus on her own spiritual journey. In 2003, she stopped wearing the niqab and today considers herself liberal.

Related link: Accusations fly in second round of Egypt vote

Explosion of political parties
With the fall of the Mubarak regime and the explosion of political parties, Aisha is figuring out where she fits into the political scene. Many Egyptians expected the emergence of Islamist parties after Mubarak’s ouster. In this conservative society that is often considered the birthplace of political Islamist movements in other parts of the world, Egyptians had grown accustomed to the presence of socio-religious political organizations.

One movement for close to 80 years has dominated political Islam in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood. And after the first round of parliamentary voting two weeks ago, its political wing, known as the Freedom and Justice Party, ascended to the top of the political ladder.

But the election result that surprised many Egyptians was the strong performance of the even-more-conservative parties known as Salafists. These parties managed to garner close to a quarter of the seats in the first round, which took place in the country’s more urban areas, like Cairo.

Now, as the voting moves into more rural areas with lower incomes, Salafist (and other Islamist) parties are expected to do just as well, if not better. In poor areas across Egypt, the state for years has failed to provide adequate social services like hospitals, clinics, schools and jobs. These shortcomings were often filled by socio-religious organizations through charitable work.

These very same charitable organizations are now part of larger political movements and are reaping the political benefits of years of service to the previously neglected masses.

Identity politics
At a polling station in Giza, one woman gave her take on Egypt’s elections. “We are not voting based on policies and solutions to our problems. I don’t think any of these candidates actually have solutions to our daily problems. I don’t know who any of them are, to be honest, but I know what they represent.”

In that sense, many believe Egypt’s elections are as much about identity as they are about politics.

“This vote should not be called elections, these elections should be called a census,” said Mohsen, a 42-year-old computer engineer, walking out of a polling station after voting in Dokki,  a town in Giza governorate just outside of Cairo. “Based on the results we will know the religious and political orientation of our society, not the policies we need,” he added.

The notion that many Egyptians are voting based on their identity in elections, which so far have been considered mostly free and fair, after decades of rigged elections and politics dominated by single party rule, may not be a surprise to many Egyptians. But some voters are concerned about what effect identity politics could have on future policies.

Omar Hikal, a businessman also voting in Dokki, was a first-timer at the polls. “I don’t believe religion should be the basis for political decisions.”

And that’s what has many liberals concerned about the first round of voting. “Egypt is not an Islamic country, it should be a Muslim country,” Hikal said. Liberals like Hikal don’t want Egypt’s largely Muslim identity to become the basis for an Islamic state.

The country’s military rulers have already suggested that the body drafting the constitution has to reflect Egyptian diversity, something that angered Islamist parties and raised worries about a looming political confrontation between an Islamist-dominated parliament and the generals.

While the Freedom and Justice Party has tried to allay fears by assuring the public that social restrictions do not top the party’s legislative agenda, not everyone is convinced.

Aisha, the one-time Salafist turned liberal, said, “the Muslim Brotherhood may not be lying, but they don’t always say the whole truth.”

To some, like Aisha and Hikal, both liberal voters, at least the Salafists are “straight shooters.”
“If they want women to stay at home and wear veils, they will tell everyone that’s what we want to do,” said Hikal.
Others don’t see it that way.

“We had the liberals like Mubarak and his children for 30 years and look what he did to the country,” said Mohammed, a 47-year-old barber who voted for the Salafist Nour Party.

Associating liberals with the era of Mubarak’s rule is a common sentiment among many conservatives who believe the pro-American and pro-Israeli leader was emblematic of liberal ideology of trying to keep religion and religious parties marginalized from politics by force.

Extremist or an inspiration?
For Aisha, the sudden emergence of Salafist parties is not a surprise. But their transformation into a political movement is new and will be tested in an expanding political environment. 

Today, Aisha believes Salafis and other parties have a place in the new Egypt, so long as they don’t force their ideology onto others, something she warns Salafists do subtly well.

Since leaving behind Salafist ideology, Aisha has been contemplating turning her personal diary into a book.

A few weeks before the elections, she posted on her Facebook page what she thought would be a fitting title for her story, “Diaries of an Ex-extremist.” A few hours later, one of her Salafi friends replied… “You were never an extremist, you were an inspiration.”