Egyptian Islamists pin their hopes on Islamic law (LA TIMES) By Jeffrey Fleishman CAIRO, EGYPT 04/06/12)
LOS ANGELES TIMES
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Supporters of Hazem Salah abu Ismail, a Salafi presidential
candidate, see sharia as the country´s — and the Muslim world´s —
CAIRO — The men gathering outside the yellow mosque agreed:
Adulterers should be stoned to death, the hands of thieves cut off.
"But not now," said Kareem Atta, waiting in a cool breeze for the
sheik´s car to roll up next to the Koran sellers. "Sharia law must be
gradually put into place so it doesn´t shock the system. You can´t
cut people´s hands off if you first don´t give them financial
The young students, engineers and laborers are followers of Hazem
Salah abu Ismail, a lawyer and holy man whose poetic blend of
populism and ultraconservative Salafi Islam has turned him into a
leading presidential candidate. Posters with Ismail´s gray beard and
boyish face seem to hang on every street and alley across this
Ismail is at once provocative and soothing, in a breath switching
from genial to fiery. He has suggested revoking Egypt´speace treaty
with Israel and holds up Iran as an exemplar of defiance against the
U.S. His hard-line rhetoric has nudged American officials closer to
the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, a sign of Washington´s
scrambling to keep pace with the tremors of the "Arab Spring."
"I will never become a puppet for the U.S. or Israel or any Western
power," Ismail said in a recent speech. He added that the U.S. was
funneling money to certain Egyptian candidates to "suit their
interests" and he urged young Muslims to "spoil such a plot."
Ismail´s candidacy, however, may be in jeopardy over an embarrassing
link to America. His mother, Nawal Abdel Aziz Nour, who lived with
his sister in the Los Angeles area, became a U.S. citizen before she
died, according to California public records. That would make him
ineligible to run. Ismail claims his mother held only a green card,
not a U.S. passport. The election commission, which confirmed that
Ismail´s mother held an American passport, is expected to decide on
whether to disqualify him in coming days.
Ismail´s is a robust voice in the fractious political Islam that is
spreading across an Egypt freed from three decades of Hosni Mubarak´s
secular rule. The movement´s passions and designs on power are
shaking leftists and non-Muslims but also altering the dynamics for
Islamists and challenging the dominance of the Brotherhood.
That was evident last week when the Brotherhood, which controls
parliament and had promised not to put forward a presidential
candidate, broke its pledge and nominated Khairat Shater, a
multimillionaire and longtime political prisoner who instantly became
a front-runner. Shater represents the middle ground for Islamists,
book-ended by Ismail´s sharper conservatism and the liberal Islam of
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member.
Ismail and his competitors embody a new Egypt searching for a
religiously resonant yet pragmatic brand of politics that can fix the
nation´s deep economic and social problems. Similar scenarios are
enveloping rising Islamists in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen and will
certainly factor in Syria if President Bashar Assad falls.
The son of a late prominent religious scholar, Ismail represented
Egyptians, including his opponent Shater, in civil rights cases
against the Mubarak government. He embraced last year´s revolution
before many other Islamists and has been a forceful critic of the
ruling military council.
He´s a favorite on talk shows and Internet videos, a charismatic
speaker who can charm a university crowd as easily as he can raise
cheers from millworkers in the provinces. He skims the edge of
fundamentalism — he once suggested that he and Osama bin Laden shared
the same ends, if not the means, to create an Islamic state — but
connects with Egyptians´ everyday worries.
"We live in dignity," is his slogan, which highlighted his recent
call for Egyptians to each donate 72 pounds ($12) so the country
could free itself of American influence by rejecting $1.3 billion in
Such prescriptions may not be widely popular in a country where more
than 40% of the population is poor, but they encapsulate Egyptians´
rising sense of pride. They also strike at a defiance toward the West
that Ismail believes should encompass everyone from politicians to
militants. He has said of Bin Laden: May God "be pleased with him and
be merciful on him. I hope that God will accept him among believers,
martyrs and righteous."
Ismail believes women should be veiled and segregated from men in the
workplace. Egypt´s lone female presidential candidate, Bothaina
Kamel, recently referred to him as a "phenomenon similar to a sci-fi
movie." But she added she would support Ismail ahead of secular
presidential front-runner Amr Moussa, whom many regard as a throwback
to the old regime.
Ismail´s recurring message of the power of Islam to transform society
was evident outside the Assad bin Forat mosque in Cairo, where he has
preached for years. It is his wellspring and sanctuary and, now, an
unofficial campaign office of pious men rushing with posters, T-
shirts and signature sheets.
"I´m doing this for the sake of God so that we can have sharia law in
Egypt," said Yasser Adel, a campaign volunteer. "We need someone with
clean hands who knows his religion well and is not corrupt. We should
gradually have an Islamic state like in Saudi Arabia, but this must
come with respect for all minorities."
Such sentiment alarms women, liberals and non-Muslims anxious over
Islamists´ control of the legislature and a panel drafting a new
constitution. But devotion guides many Egyptians who for years
steeled themselves with religion against the state injustices.
The young at the mosque were excited, even surprised, that they could
gather without fear of arrest. Theirs was a focused energy not only
on their candidate but the prospect of what his election could mean
to an Arab world in disarray.
"Egypt is the heart of the Islamic world and if Egypt rises
religiously, the whole Muslim world will rise," said Ahmed Fathy,
dressed in a pinstriped suit and holding the hand of his
daughter. "Sharia means an end to poverty and the corruption that
have left this country struggling."
As Fathy spoke, trucks and minivans bearing Ismail´s image loaded
placards and campaign literature and drove off into the night. Amro
Hassan in The Times´ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.
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