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Secular Egyptians Fear Theocracy By New Parliament


In Egypt, Islamists are once again expected to dominate at the ballot box, in the second round of parliamentary elections. Their anticipated win in a vote that begins tomorrow has many secular Egyptians fearing the new parliament will turn their country into a theocracy. Secular candidates say they will not go down without a fight. Some are even trying to use religion to lure voters away from the Islamists.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this report from Cairo.


SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Amani Essawi works the crowd that's gathered to meet the secular candidate on this cool night in Algouza.


NELSON: That's no easy task in this middle-class enclave across the river from Cairo. Several men grumble at her that secular lawmakers they elected during Hosni Mubarak's era only showed up when they needed votes. But she seems to win them over with her pledges to improve government services.


NELSON: Essawi, who works in a government office, is a first-time candidate. She is running as an independent with no ties to any political party. She says she's had to fight misperceptions that a vote for her would be casting a ballot for the past, given that Mubarak's government was staunchly secular.

Another hurdle is that she doesn't wear an Islamic headscarf, which an overwhelming majority of the women in her electoral district do. She says her Islamist opponents, like the ultra-conservative Salafists, have defaced her campaign posters.

AMANI ESSAWI: You know, I have, like, cards with my photo, et cetera; because I am not veiled they remove them and they put like Salafi, you know, people on top of mine, things like that, but I am trying. When I talk to the normal people in the street I get lots of acceptance.

NELSON: Essawi is among a growing number of secular candidates who say they have stepped up efforts to meet voters face-to-face after most of them lost the first round. Many analysts attribute that loss to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties being more organized and better at community outreach. Khaled Fahmy, who chairs the history department at the American University in Cairo, says it didn't help that few secular candidates talked about what they would do if elected.

KHALED FAHMY: I was looking around for concrete programs in order to compare and contrast. I spent a week trying to find in my district what the different candidates are saying regarding different issues. And there was very little to go by.

NELSON: Mohammed Shadid Shaheen adds, when he and other secular candidates did talk about their plans, the Brotherhood and Salafist candidates denounced them as un-Islamic.

MOHAMMED SHADID SHAHEEN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says it proved an effective strategy, playing to deeply rooted religious sentiments in this largely Muslim country. But Shaheen adds he decided to beat the Islamists at their own game. He used Quranic teachings to justify his liberal platform. It paid off.

Shaheen is a member of the liberal Free Egyptians Party. He ran as an independent and beat out his Muslim Brotherhood opponent in the first round of parliamentary elections in Cairo last week.

SHAHEEN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Shaheen says his approach is one other secular candidates have adopted in their own campaigns. But analysts and political activists predict other tactics employed by secular parties will backfire. For example, many secular groups that have nothing in common have formed alliances to compete with the Islamists.

Secular candidate Amani Essawi says some secular parties are working against her with as much vigor as the Islamists.

ESSAWI: I think that the secular movements are, I would say, exaggerating and overdoing it because simply I'm not given a fair chance to compete and to present my work and to present my programs to the people.

NELSON: Essawi predicts what they are doing will end up helping the Islamists win even more seats.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.