Egypt trembles as sharia noose looms

Posted: April 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

Voters fear the imposition of the veil and a harsh penal code if radicals win the
election

By Hala Jaber, as published in The Sunday Times

Salafists and backers of the Muslim Brotherhood support Islamic law (Amr Nabil)
EGYPT’S presidential election was plunged into chaos last night as the country’s electoral
commission, which decides who is qualified to stand, excluded three of the leading candidates.
Among 10 figures excluded from next month’s poll were Khayrat Shater, the chief strategist of
the Muslim Brotherhood, Omar Suleiman, formerly Hosni Mubarak’s spy chief, and Hazem
Salah Abu Ismail, leader of Nour, the ultra-orthodox Salafist party.
The excluded candidates were given 48 hours to appeal. Huge protests are expected as the
decision is being seen in Cairo as a brazen attempt by representatives of the old Mubarak regime
to prevent a hardline Islamic candidate becoming president.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist party captured more than 70% of the parliamentary
seats in the first post-revolution election earlier this year.
There have been growing concerns that their candidates are intent on the introduction of sharia,
which would see women obliged to wear the veil and a harsh penal code including amputations
for theft.
The electoral commission’s decision could easily spark street violence. On Friday there were
huge demonstrations that were interpreted as a challenge to the interim military regime over
Suleiman’s candidacy — he too is viewed as a throwback to the old regime. He said he had
entered the race to prevent Islamic rule.
Abu Ismail’s spokesman said last night that he expected “a major crisis to happen in the next few
hours”. Senior aides to Suleiman also insisted they would challenge the commission’s ruling.
The Salafists’ Abu Ismail, who preaches a strict interpretation of Islam similar to the one
practised in Saudi Arabia, has become a familiar sight in Cairo, with his posters adorning walls,
cars and mini-buses even in the affluent district of Zamalek, where wealthy Egyptians live
alongside western embassies and expatriates.
A populist who took an active part in the uprising against Mubarak, he calls for a ban on beach
tourism and alcohol, and the revival of religious schools.
His Nour party has already proposed a bill that would introduce laws including the death penalty
for murder, amputation of one arm and one leg for robbery with violence, and even crucifixion,
at a judge’s discretion, for robbery leading to murder.
Proposals for social reforms that would allow marriage at puberty for girls as young as nine have
also alarmed moderates and Egypt’s 10% Christian minority. A ban on bikinis, meanwhile,
would threaten the tourist industry.
Banning bank interest, excluding women and non-Muslims from executive positions, segregating
the sexes at work and revising Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel are also part of the vision for
Egypt set out by Yasser Burhami, a charismatic leader of the Salafi Call Society, of which Nour
is the political arm.
“Between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, Egypt is in danger of turning into an
Islamic state, a Sunni Iran,” a former Egyptian ambassador said last week.
The calls for sharia have alarmed many secular and liberal groups, as well as the Coptic
Christians who fear persecution under an Islamic theocracy.
“By the end of the presidential election we may see an Islamic state rather than an Egyptian
state,” said Abdel-Latif El Menawy, an analyst and author of Tahrir: The Last 18 Days of
Mubarak.
“Those voting for the Islamists believe they are voting for God, but they forget that God is not
running for election.”
There is a ban on official campaigning until April 26, when the final list of candidates will be
announced by the election commission. If no candidate wins an outright majority in May, the
two leading contenders will face a run-off in June.
Businessmen, porters, street vendors and others discuss the latest developments hourly. In the
poorer quarters, the anticipation and excitement at the prospect of power after decades in the
shadows is palpable, while those young idealists who led last year’s revolution are disillusioned.
Radwan, a taxi driver, said: “Abu Ismail is a pop star here. He has massive popular support
across Egypt. But he has a difficult task because he will not be able to tell us that music is haram
[forbidden] and foreign tourism is banned.
“The Egyptian people won’t accept it and we’ll have a second revolution.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, mindful of the impact of scaring away western tourists, has adopted a
more moderate tone, but Shater has spoken of sharia as “my first and final project and objective”.
The brotherhood had suffered an earlier setback when a court suspended the Islamist-dominated
assembly drafting the new constitution. That will now have to wait until after the presidential
poll.
A driver who had taken part in last year’s revolution said he now lamented the end of the
Mubarak era. “We didn’t worry about talking to girls, going out to parties or drinking if we
wanted. Now our women’s freedoms will be restricted and they’ll be told to stay at home.”
Speaking before the electoral commission’s ruling, he added: “I’ll vote for Suleiman, even if he
was a former member of the regime. At least he can ensure security and run this country without
infringing our personal freedoms.”
Additional reporting: Sara Hashash

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