Ahmed Zaki Osman
Secular groups in Alexandria are rallying to confront predominant Islamist forces in the coastal city ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
On Thursday, the Wafd Party will host all the secular parties and opposition groups in an effort to establish a coalition and develop strategies for contending with both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis.
“We’ve agreed on some major points such as putting aside the ideological differences since we all agree on the secularism of the state, and on not handing the revolution to dogmatic forces. We are thinking of a plan not to have two candidates from the secular bloc in the same constituency so that they don’t compete with each other,” said Rashad Abdel-Al, a Wafd Party spokesman in Alexandria.
In the meantime, the main challenge for those secular groups is a prevalent Islamic trend in Alexandria, with mainly Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi manifestations.
Alexandria is Egypt’s second largest city with a population of 4.1 million. In the last two parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2010, it was one of the main battlegrounds for the National Democratic Party’s campaign to sweep the elections, edging out lawmakers affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Amid allegations of election fraud by the former regime, the Brotherhood failed to garner any of the city’s 22 seats.
In the 2005 elections, the Brotherhood won eight seats, making Alexandria its third most influential parliamentary stronghold after the Delta governorate of Gharbiya, where it had ten seats, and Cairo, where it had nine.
For some political leaders, the past dominance of the Brotherhood over the coastal city is no indicator of a landslide victory in the upcoming elections.
“Any starting point for thinking about the next parliamentary elections should bear in mind the results of the last referendum on constitutional amendments in Alexandria,” said al-Sayed Ghazi, head of the Alexandria office of the left-leaning Tagammu Party.
Alexandria had the highest voter turnout of any governorate during the 19 March referendum, with around 1.5 million voting on whether to accept or reject the constitutional amendments. With 32 percent opposing the changes, Alexandria also had the fourth-highest percentage of “no” votes.
“These figures simply give us an indicator that despite the heavy campaign marred with religious propaganda by the Brotherhood and the Salafi groups to convince people to back the referendum, one third of the voters said ‘no’,” said Ghazi. “Don’t overestimate the power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria.”
The Brotherhood and Salafis held campaigns to convince people to vote for the constitutional amendments, presumably because the group wanted early elections, for which they are perceived as the most prepared contenders.
“A third of the voters saying ‘no’ is not a small number. This number highlighted the power of the secular forces in the city that could be translated easily into parliamentary gains,” said Abdel-Al.
Abdel-Al argued that secular forces, which consist of old parties and the new opposition groups, could win at least half of the seats of Alexandria and maybe more in any electoral system.
In the 2010 elections, the Tagammu Party fielded ten candidates in Alexandria, while the liberal Wafd Party, the biggest formal opposition party in terms of membership, fielded 13 candidates but did not win any seats.
Previous elections have been based on candidates themselves rather than a system or proportional representation in which voters choose a party and the parties receive a certain number of seats accordingly. Opposition parties have criticized this system, saying it encourages candidates to spend vast amounts of money on their campaigns and also that it allows many non-political factors to influence a candidate’s popularity.
Some have advocated for proportional voting, which they hope would shift the focus to party platforms and positions and away from personalities and flashy campaigns. This is being used as a winning card for the seculars.
“Changing the electoral system will turn the electoral battle into a political contest over programs and ideas and this will be a major threat to the Muslim Brotherhood,” argued Ghazi.
Moreover, the candidate-based system is the “only means for the former ruling NDP to have the ability to compete with the Brotherhood and win some seats of the governorate’s 22 seats,” said Abdel Haleem.
As for the Salafis, conservative Islamists who have long abstained from politics but recently announced they would begin participating, secular opposition politicians believe they have no chance of winning seats in Alexandria.
Alexandria is a major stronghold for the Salafi movement, which adopts a literal interpretation of Islam and Sharia Law.
In the working class area of Karmooz in Alexandria, Salafi Abu Abdel Rahman, was hanging posters against “indecently-dressed women” on the fences of a school. The posters, featuring a non-veiled woman surrounded by insects, were put up over other Salafi posters that had been torn or removed.
“We are inviting people to return to God and adhere to the true teachings of Islam,” said Abdel Rahman, who was in the middle of a heated discussion with area residents.
Some of the Salafi banners were covered in graffiti denouncing their content or accusing followers for being extremist. In the meantime, posters reading “yes for a secular state” were also found on the streets of the city.
Tension in the city between Salafis and Copts abounds.
Joseph Malak, the coordinator of the Free National Coalition Party, the secular party dominated by Copts, said, “There are strong fears within the Coptic community in Alexandria that the Salafis are preparing to attack unveiled women. We do not know whether these rumors are related to news about the Brotherhood possibly conducting a dialogue with Coptic youth.”
Recently, an estimated 16 historic Sufi mosques were targeted by members of the Salafi movement, who believe mosques that contain shrines to the dead do not conform to Islam, Sheikh Gaber Kasem al-Kholy, the highest Sufi Sheikh in Alexandria, told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
“They have made fatal mistakes by attacking people in mosques that have tombs. They are simply causing public panic and by such attitude they are not going to achieve any success in the next elections if they decide to run,” argued Abdel-Al.
Ghazi said the “Brotherhood activists are hesitant to confront the Salafis, fearing the latter would accuse them of compromising religion. I think that they are both falling.”
According to Malak, the founding members of the Free National Coalition Party will not apply to register their party yet. “Instead we will use our platform to support candidates who believe in the secularism of the state,” he said.
With an estimated 1 million Copts living in Alexandria, the city has one of the largest Coptic communities in the nation, said Malak.
“We have seen the impact of the Coptic population in the referendum. I think that the Copts are now more determined in taking part in shaping the political landscape of the new Egypt by supporting secular voices,” said Malak.
Source: al-Masry al-Youm.