Bread, Water, Land, God, and Votes

By Seierstad, Anne | Newsweek International, November 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

Bread, Water, Land, God, and Votes


Seierstad, Anne, Newsweek International


Byline: Asne Seierstad

Will Egypt's Islamists win the upcoming elections? A trip up the Nile to find out.

"Back soon," says the sign outside the hardware store. "In mosque." The flimsy shutters have been pulled down and secured with a small padlock. The door behind them is covered with handwritten notices: "Cell phones charged." "Axes for sale." Signs dangle in the Egyptian desert wind, some emblazoned with Quranic quotations. "God is the light in heaven and on earth," proclaims one painted slab of wood. "Curtain rods," says another.

The guidebook says there's little reason to visit Qena. That may be true in ordinary times, but with voting scheduled to begin Nov. 28 in Egypt's first parliamentary elections since the fall of Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship, this scruffy market town, more than 450 kilometers up the Nile from Cairo, offers a window into Egypt's future. Because more than half the country's 85 million people live in tradition-bound communities like Qena, far from the big cities, there's widespreadconcern that the rural vote could propel the country's hardline Islamists to a parliamentary majority. Qena itself was off-limits to most travelers in the mid-1990s, when the Nile Valley was the center of an Islamist insurgency in which more than 1,000 people were killed.

But that's in the distant past for most people in Qena; they're focused on the upcoming elections. "The most important thing is for Egypt to be ruled by Islam," says an ambulance driver at the fishmonger's shop. "The most important thing is that the state will not be based on Islam," says the head of the local elementary school as he buys a copy of the Cairo daily Al Gomhuria. "I'll vote if one of my relatives stands for office," says a veteran who lost a leg in the 1973 war against Israel.

Not everyone in Qena speaks so freely. "It's best to hide from the wind," is as much as the local tailor will say. "Keep close to the wall when it starts blowing." Above the dress patterns that cover the wall, a crucifix hangs. Egypt's Copts, the indigenous Christians who are 10 percent of the country's population, have been targets of violence since early spring. In March a self-declared Salafist (a hardline Muslim fundamentalist) attacked a Christian on the street in Qena and cut off his ear. In April, the caretaker regime's nomination of a Christian to be Qena's provincial governor set off days of furious demonstrations until he stepped down. Since then several churches have been torched across the country. The burning of one in Aswan touched off protests in Cairo last month that left more than two dozen dead, almost all of them Christians.

The tailor's young apprentice speaks up. "Yahya next door is a Salafist," he announces. "I've known him since I was a child. He's the kindest man on earth." The Salafists, who were persecuted mercilessly under the Mubarak regime, regard their version of the faith as Islam in its purest form, as it was practiced by the prophet's first followers. Since the fall of the dictatorship, a new generation of politically oriented Salafist imams has emerged, and several Salafist parties have been formed.

The apprentice darts around his sewing machine and beckons me outside. "My name is Hani Tamer Halim, and I am not afraid," he says. He extends his hand, revealing a small tattoo on the inside of his wrist: a Coptic cross. "There's Yahya, back from the mosque," he says. The bearded young man undoes the lock on the hardware store next door and raises the shutters. Customers begin trickling into the shop after us, asking for nails, a saw, a particular kind of screw. "What's your best seller?" I ask Yahya. He holds up a lock. "This. Now people want two or even three locks on their doors. Times are uncertain. Crime is up." He smiles. "Fear is good for business!"

Still, the fall of the dictatorship has brought him something he values far more than a boom in home-security hardware. …

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