Damietta’s Islamists: Promising the Faithful Prosperity

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“I want God’s people to rule now. That way, God will make things better for Egypt,” said voter Mona Abu Hussein. (Photo: al-Akhbar - Serene Assir)

By: Serene Assir

Published Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In the north Egyptian province of Damietta, voters are hopeful that Islamist parties will bring them economic and social justice, after years of marginalization and inequality. For critics, the coming period will expose the Islamists’ inability to fulfill their promise.

Damietta - For the second time this month, voters in Damietta made their way to polling stations to cast their ballot, this time to make a choice between two leading individual candidates. Two hundred kilometers north of Cairo, Damietta was faced with a choice between a Salafi candidate and a competitor from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). This repeat round’s results are supplementary to the official results of the first parliamentary electoral round, held November 28 and 29. Then too, voters turned out en masse to vote for the two Islamist favorites. The more moderate al-Wasat Party came third in Damietta, with the liberal Egyptian Coalition coming fourth.

The Nour Party, set up just six months ago, focused its campaign on a religious discourse critics have labeled illegal according to Egyptian electoral law, which bans the use of religious slogans in campaigns. “Choose sharia law,” read electoral pamphlets handed out by Nour Party cadres at the gates of voting stations.

To voters, it was precisely the Salafis’ commitment to religion that rendered them all the more appealing. “We’ve been ruled by people who don’t know God for 30 years, and that’s why we’ve been living so badly,” said voter Mona Abu Hussein, as she came out of a polling station in central Damietta. “I want God’s people to rule now. That way, God will make things better for Egypt.”

“We owe our success to God,” said the Salafi Nour Party public relations manager in Damietta, Tamer Fayed. “We still have a long way to go before the elections are over, but so far we are doing very well. For sure, we are surprised, because our party was only set up a few months ago.” Fayed denied the Nour Party had committed any violations of Egyptian electoral law, and attributed accusations by other political parties to the ferocity of competition in the country’s first free parliamentary election.

Although the Salafis’ party was only set up six months ago, their strong link to the poor was developed through a proselytizing programme focused on mosques across the country, coupled with social assistance programs inspired by Islam. “The Salafis are part of our society,” said Abu Hussein. “We support them because we know them very well and we can trust them to do good.”

The Nour Party’s closest competitors in Damietta, the FJP, came second in the count for the first round by approximately 42,000 votes. Like the Nour Party, FJP volunteers were present at the gates of a polling station in Damietta during the repeat vote.

With a program focused on achieving “social justice, freedom, integral development” and improving Egypt’s political and economic status, the FJP may have come second so far in Damietta, but are leading the polls nationwide, with the Salafis a close second.

“People are voting for the Islamists precisely because they promise economic justice and an end to marginalization,” said veteran leftist activist Gamal Beltagi, who works as an engineer in the port of Damietta. “Other parties and movements have so far been unable to put together any kind of program that responds both to voters’ commitment to religion and to their need for economic improvement in a country that suffers from gross inequality.”

Indeed the Freedom and Justice Party have put together a program whose aim is to deal with the inequalities that plague the country, said winning FJP candidate and incumbent MP Saber Abdel Sadeq. “The program has many strengths. Among them is our focus on improving public health and education services. For workers we promise full social security.”

As for implementation and funding, Abdel Sadeq said “we will focus on encouraging investment instead of credit. We believe in a controlled free market economy. We cannot permit the corruption we have suffered from for so long, but we must also allow investment in order to encourage development.”

The Freedom and Justice Party, which some Islamists in Damietta viewed as closer to the well-to-do than to the poor, was as keen here as it was in Cairo on November 28 and 29 to emphasize its moderation in politics and economics. To critics, this moderation was an eerie echo of the free market economic policies promoted by the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) under ousted President Hosni Mubarak. To Abdel Sadeq, “People have a right to lead better lives, and we have a plan that will get us there.”

Where the FJP differed most clearly with the NDP was with regards to international trade, according to Abdel Sadeq. In this sense, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party mixed free market policies with more social leanings.

“We currently import 50 percent of our wheat. We do not believe that this reality is sustainable or necessary,” he said. “As for foreign funding, we reject the idea that Egypt needs to be sustained by loans.”

With economic policies combining welfare and free market policies, Islamist parties in Damietta were better equipped than any other party lists to do well in the election. Damietta is one of Egypt’s better off provinces, with a relatively low unemployment rate. Voters there were motivated not just by their desire for Egypt to do better, but also by their moral sense of affiliation to the winning parties’ religiosity.

To Beltagi, the coming months will pose enormous challenges for the FJP and Nour parties alike. “There’s a difference between making policy and implementing it, especially at such a difficult time,” he said.

Maher Shayyal, a Damietta-based analyst, agreed. “The Islamist parties take a capitalist line. In that sense, regardless of the face they give their policies, the fact is that Egypt needs real change in order to overcome the economic crisis its people have suffered for decades.”

To Shayyal, the Islamist parties are bound to face challenges because “they lack practical political experience, and they also know very little about the international economic framework the country operates in.”

But voters on the streets in Damietta, as in much of the rest of the country, were charged with hope and belief in the future. What remains to be seen is the extent to which the voters’ hopes of freedom, justice and equality can be met in a context that remains in flux.

While protesters in Cairo continue to call for the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to hand over power to a civilian government, voters in Damietta are a long way from abandoning the step-by-step, transitional philosophy that both the SCAF and the Islamists promote. “Inshallah, we will reach the goals the Egyptians set out to achieve,” said voter Abu Hussein.

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