On a barren hill in Sharm el-Sheikh, not far from the famous beach resorts with their bikini-clad patrons, Islamist activist Ahmed Saber ponders the fate of revealing swimwear if his party comes to power.
The swimsuit has been at the center of a growing debate over the Islamists’ plans for tourism, one of Egypt’s key currency earners.
Speaking to reporters at a voting station, Saber seeks to present a liberal outline of his party’s position on the bikini.
“You’re free to do as you please as long as you don’t harm me,” he said.
The Sharm el-Sheikh tour guide then goes on to explain that: “Some sights might harm me. For example, women wearing bikinis on the street. There are special places for bikinis.”
After decades of repression by a secular police state, the Muslim Brotherhood grouping finds itself fending off questions about its plans for beach resort mainstays like bikinis and alcohol — considered to go against Islam by some.
With ultra-conservatives poised to play a big role in parliament during an economic crisis, the Islamists’ thoughts on what tourists may wear or drink are being scrutinized amid fears they will harm the country’s vital tourism industry.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), poised to win the most votes in the country’s first election since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February, has promised it would not hurt tourism.
However, some of its candidates have exacerbated the fears with pledges to ban alcohol or bikinis on beaches, forcing their leaders to backtrack.
Essam al-Erian, the party’s vice president, said the FJP would no longer comment on bikinis.
“It’s a ridiculous question. -Tourism can’t be considered in terms of bikinis or such matters,” he said.
The party’s candidate in Sharm el-Sheikh, Ahmed Qassim, also appeared wearied by the topic. He said he has repeatedly assured voters the Islamists would encourage tourism.
“We are with tourism, and we are not against personal freedoms,” he said.
However, along the beaches, hotel workers said they were worried, particularly about ultra-conservative Salafis who won more than 20 percent of the votes in the election’s first two rounds.
“People are very worried,” said Ahmed, while approaching sun bathing guests to offer them massages at the hotel. “Especially by Al-Nour [the main Salafi party]. With the Brotherhood, at least we can have a discussion.”
“But the Salafis are different. They are used to sitting in mosques saying: ‘God commanded this, and the Prophet commanded that.’ And now suddenly they are involved in politics. It won’t work,” Ahmed said.
The country has seen a near 30 percent drop in tourist revenues last year, the government says, as sporadic and sometimes deadly -political unrest dominated the news. Roughly 10 million tourists visited the country last year, according to government statistics. The decline has been felt more in Cairo and Luxor, which house ancient Egyptian artifacts.
Much of Sharm el-Sheikh’s hotel workers vote back home, in provinces like Cairo or Beheira, and some said they voted for the Brotherhood.
“I voted for the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t think they will ruin tourism,” said Yassir, standing at a beach kiosk handing towels to guests. “They are flexible. They have been in politics for a long time.”
Egyptian Minister of Tourism Munir Fakhry Abdel Nur, who has been drawing up plans to revitalize the industry, brushed aside an Islamist threat to tourism.