Egypt’s presidential contenders have been going through a new campaign rite of passage. One by one over recent weeks, they appeared before a panel of bearded, ultraconservative Muslim clerics who meticulously question them, including on how they intend to implement Islamic law.
The vetting of candidates in next month’s landmark presidential elections is part of a move by Islamist clerics to become power players in Egypt’s emerging political system, a sign of the country’s dramatic shift during the stormy transition since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was ousted more than a year ago.
For years, clerics from the ultraconservative Salafi movement built their influence among Egyptians, preaching in mosques and on satellite TV stations. Since Mubarak’s fall, they have become political interlocutors meeting with the military generals who took power, holding conferences in five-star hotels and organizing large rallies around the country.
Now they are trying to unite around a single candidate for the presidency, a potentially significant boost for whomever they endorse.
“They are key players in the Egyptian politics or the new centers that shape Egyptian politics,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movement. “It is something no one could have imagined a year ago.”
Their efforts have startled many Egyptians. During nearly 30 years of Mubarak’s regime, clerics never played such a direct and open role. Salafi clerics themselves traditionally shunned politics, limiting themselves to spreading their faith, and several of their organizations were formed only after last year’s revolution as a tool to inject their voice into politics.
“This is really a scene out of Pakistan,” said Ibrahim Eissa, the liberal host of a TV political talk show, of the candidates being interviewed by clerics. “This is very dangerous.”
However, their efforts have also highlighted the divisions among Egypt’s Islamist movements, particularly between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, and among the Salafis themselves.
The 83-year-old Brotherhood is Egypt’s strongest political movement and won nearly half of parliament’s seats in elections late last year. Salafis, in contrast, are far less monolithic and organized. The Salafis advocate a more conservative vision of Islam, similar to that of Saudi Arabia, and tend to demand a starker ideological purity than the Brotherhood. They are also less experienced in politics. Nevertheless, Salafi politicians scored big in the parliament elections, winning about 20 percent of the legislature’s seats.
There are several organizations of Salafi clerics, each trying to decide which candidate to back. The main contenders for their endorsement are the two top Islamists — the Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, and Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate who broke with the Brotherhood last year.
This week, one organization known as the Religious Legal Commission for Rights and Reform announced its backing for Morsi, after more than 30 hours of meetings with 10 candidates it invited for interviews. The panel went through a list of more than 30 questions with each, topped by how the candidate intends to implement Shariah law, what his foreign policy will be and how he would deal with the clerics if elected.
When Morsi, for example, was asked what was the first country he would visit as president, he replied Saudi Arabia, the heartland of Salafi thought, where many of Egypt’s Salafi clerics studied.
In video aired on TV and accounts of the interviews posted on the commission’s Facebook page, each candidate appears in his Western suit at a table of clerics, bearded and wearing robes, their heads draped with shawls or topped with clerical caps.
In the interview with Abolfotoh — who is also popular among some liberal Egyptians — the commission’s secretary-general, Mohammed Yosri, called him out on his liberal, leftist views.
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