By Abdelrahman Youssef / Reuters
MINYA: Far from Egypt’s cities where Hosni Mubarak’s old allies might fear to face the electorate, figures from the deposed leader’s era have re-emerged to run for parliament in rural areas where sectarian rivalries can be played for political advantage.
In Minya, 270 km (170 miles) south of Cairo, the Freedom Party founded by ex-Mubarak loyalists put prominent local Christian candidate Ihab Ramzy top of its list, helping it draw votes from the city’s large Coptic Christian community.
Islamist parties have dominated the staggered vote, Egypt’s first free election in six decades, and a bloc of mostly newly established liberal parties is scrambling for remaining seats up for grabs in a final run-off votes on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Coptic Christians make up about a tenth of Egypt’s population of 80 million and are a natural target for the liberal Egyptian Bloc, given broad Coptic suspicions of the Muslim Brotherhood and more hardline Salafi party Al-Nour.
But the courting of the Christian vote by former Mubarak allies in Minya and other southern cities is posing an added headache for the liberal alliance as it struggles to respond to the well organized Islamist vote-winning machine to gain a foothold in the assembly and exert its influence in the drawing up of Egypt’s new constitution.
Ibrahim Gamil, 23, a Christian jeweler in Minya who said he voted for the Freedom Party, was unmoved by the fact that its founders were once Mubarak loyalists.
“I want the guy on the top of the list. He is a good guy,” said Gamil.
Leaders of the Freedom Party say they are former members of Mubarak’s defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) but want people to give them a chance in Egypt’s first free parliamentary vote since army officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952.
“I was a member of the NDP and I am proud of it,” said Taher Abdel Hamid, a top Freedom Party official in Cairo. “Those who committed wrongdoing should be punished, but it isn’t fair to generalize.”
For years, the NDP’s rivals accused it of shoving them aside by stuffing ballot boxes, buying votes or intimidating voters into choosing its candidates.
Mubarak and his senior lieutenants are now on trial for corruption, abuse of power and the killing of protesters who toppled him from power last February.
But people in Minya say local Mubarak-era figures – commonly known as “feloul” or remnants – have enduring clout that makes them a powerful force in some areas.
Many are wealthy businessmen, merchants and lawyers with deep roots in their home towns who offer a familiar face in a complex political landscape with thousands of parliamentary candidates and dozens of parties.
“Coptic citizens don’t realize that voting for the remnants’ parties with Christians on the top of their lists will disperse their votes and none of those candidates will make it to the parliament,” said Soliman Shafiq, a prominent local Coptic intellectual. “Islamists will get more votes in the end.”
Freedom Party candidate Ramzy enjoys local Coptic support, residents say, because of his good relations with the church in a province where rampant poverty and widespread illiteracy gives religion a huge influence on votes.
One of the poorest parts of Egypt, Minya is also a stronghold of strict Islamist groups such as the former militant jihadist Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya (Islamic Group), helping put religion at the heart of the electoral battle.
The Freedom Party, which identifies itself as liberal, said it had already won at least five seats in southern Egypt during the third stage of the staggered parliamentary vote before this week’s run-offs.
The new parliament’s primary task will be to appoint an assembly to draft a new constitution. Coptic Christians and many liberal Muslims say Islamists could monopolize the new assembly and threaten minority rights.
The Coptic Orthodox church has urged its followers to vote for parties “calling for a civil state”, as opposed to an Islamic one, without saying which liberal parties it advocates.
Some Copts in Minya were reluctant to give their votes to Mubarak loyalists.
“The Freedom Party are the remnants of the previous regime and they have bad candidates in their lists … They are splitting Coptic votes,” said Bishoy Gerges, 22, a drama teacher who said he was voting for the Egyptian Bloc.
Voting in rural areas is also influenced by tribal alignments and Mubarak loyalists rely on their well-established networks among local families in southern Egypt and charity work to guarantee them votes.
Several Islamist parties also competed in last week’s third-round vote, which concludes with this week’s run-offs.
Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya led an insurgency against Mubarak from the city during the 1990s before renouncing violence and claiming a stake in politics. One candidate running under its banner in Minya, Alaa Saber, was jailed for 18 years on terrorism charges under Mubarak.
At the other end of the Islamist spectrum, the secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party Mohamed Al-Katatny and the head of the moderate Al-Wasat Islamist party, Aboul Ela Mady, also ran in the province.
Both are national political heavyweights who further complicated liberal efforts to win seats.
Mady, a political veteran who founded Al-Wasat, said he opposed the post-Mubarak game of Muslim liberals and Copts versus Islamists, appealing for votes across the religious divide.
“We are against the Islamic-secular and Islamic-Coptic polarization,” he said.
That message appeared to have little resonance among voters in Minya.
Mady lost his seat in last week’s third-round vote to ex-Mubarak loyalist Ramzy of the Freedom Party. –Additional reporting and writing by Tamim Elyan