Alexandria bucks national trends and Islamist reputation

ALEXANDRIA – Praying for the best, Mabrooka Hassan Ali sat with her husband under the shade beside their voting station on the Mediterranean coastline. Ali, in her mid-60s, said she had just finished casting her vote for Hamdeen Sabbahi, Egypt’s secular, nationalist candidate.

“I did it for the martyrs,” said Ali, who is from downtown Alexandria, the governorate’s most densely populated district. “I did it because we’re tired of being slapped around, youth have no jobs and we want to live.”

Alexandria is the home of Khaled Said, a young man who was beaten to death in broad daylight by police in June 2010 and is considered the first martyr of the revolution. It is also considered a stronghold for Islamists, with thousands of Salafi followers and Muslim Brothers.

Over the past few weeks, however, Alexandria has proven to be full of surprises.

As Sabahhi won by a landslide with about 602,453 votes (34.2 percent), it was no shock that more and more across the city had lost hope in Egypt’s Islamists, especially after the Parliament’s performance over the past six months.

“We didn’t vote for any feloul (remnants of the old regime) in the parliamentary elections, and we lost trust in the Brotherhood,” said 24-year-old Mostafa al-Esbaa, a grocery store owner in downtown Alexandria, and a self-described Alexandria patriot who voted for Sabbahi.

Behind Sabbahi, Abdel Moniem Abouel Fotouh, a moderate Islamist independent candidate followed with 387,497, or 22 percent, of the votes, while former foreign minister Amr Moussa won 291,000 votes in third place, followed by Mohamed Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate with 269,455. Ahmed Shafiq, former prime minister under Mubarak, who is leading the poll nationally, only won 212,275 votes in Egypt’s second largest city.

“I never thought that Sabbahi would get Alexandria,” said Mohamed Kassem, a 19-year-old student at Alexandria University who voted for the secular candidate. “Labeling himself as the revolution’s candidate, he was the best of the worst, coming from a simple family himself, and involving his family in his campaign helped him win us over.”

WIth a Parliament dominated by 70 percent Islamists, the majority of people in Alexandria, young and old wanted “new blood” and a middle ground, which they say they found in candidates like Sabbahi or Amr Moussa.

“What have the [Islamists] done so far? We need someone like Moussa because he can put them behind bars again,” stressed Hassan Osman, a 50-year-old taxi driver.

“How can we trust someone who says he is a man of God, but lies about getting a nose job?” he said with a laugh, referring to the notorious incident of Salafi MP Anwar al-Balkimi.

Many locals in the city expressed similar sentiment. It was clear by now that people had lost trust and hope in both the ultraconservative Salafi Nour Party, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

Days ago, a Gallup Poll showed that the Islamists’ support in the country has dropped by 20 percent in the past six months.  

“I was surprised by the extent of the drop,” said Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University in the United States. “The Parliament is impotent because it doesn’t have executive authority and if you don’t deliver to the people, you’ll get punished for that,” he said.

Alexandrians, on the other hand, say they realized that the Parliament was powerless months ago and that the country’s only salvation would be electing an “honest” man, someone with no religious affiliation.

Voters across the city, especially in its most densely populated slums, say they voted for Abouel Fotouh or Sabbahi because they were “fed up” with candidates like Shafiq and Moussa, who they considered remnants of the former regime, as well as the Islamists.

Many expressed their regret for allowing Islamists to take the majority of Parliament before and said this time they were voting to set things right.

“No way will I vote for Morsy. We made the mistake of voting a majority of the Brotherhood into Parliament. They are doing nothing and are powerless," Magdy Mohamed, 48, a downtown resident told Egypt Independent on election day.

While the Alexandria vote can be attributed to the people’s constant calls for bread, dignity, and freedom since the Egyptian revolution began last year, it can also be related to the transformation of Egypt’s politics more generally.

“There is diversity in the political scene, there is also a revolutionary movement on the ground that found itself in Hamdeen Sabbahi, surprisingly,” said Ashraf El-Sherif, political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

But, the reason behind Alexandria’s secular, nationalist vote is deeper than the people’s resentment towards the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafi movement.

In the heart of the city, the Salafi movement as a religious following has drifted from its politically active members who associate themselves with the Nour Party, which controls about a quarter of the seats in the People’s Assembly.

“Now, the split within the Salafis has been apparent these days, there are some who want to leave the political scene and go back to preaching and their religious roots, which was their main concern before,” said El-Sherif, who followed the Salafi movement during the previous parliamentary elections.

The split within the religious group is not only apparent to analysts or political experts, it is also a well-known phenomenon among locals, especially in the downtown area of Bahary district, which make up Ras El Tin, Tabya, and Qait Bay, where Salafi preachers have a widespread presence in the local Mosques.

“We saw that people were really tired and fed up with Brotherhood,” said Mostafa. “Salafis are split within each other, there are many of them who did not vote for Abouel Fotouh and decided to do their own thing.”

Although founders of the Nour Party announced their support for Abouel Fotouh, a long-time Islamist and once a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, many followers in the Salafi movement in Alexandria seem to have abandoned the reformist candidate.

“There is some speculation that Salafis, or some Salafis, as a religious movement did not vote for Abouel Fotouh or Morsi, particularly in the case of Abouel Fotouh,” said Shehata.

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