Egypt’s ties with Israel bolster Islamist campaign

Egypt’s ties with Israel bolster Islamist campaign  

 In Egypt’s textile heartland, popular support for the opposition Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary election has also fed off anti-Israeli sentiment since the government developed a trade agreement with the Jewish state.

Voters in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla prepare to return to the polls on Saturday to elect MPs from among candidates involved in runoffs for the second phase of Egypt’s month-long poll.

The town, home to some 500,000 people, lies in Gharbiya governorate, where the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood fielded many candidates, two of whom won outright in the November 20 first round.

“Yes, Islam is the solution,” says Yasser Mahmud, who works in a local textile factory, which was recently included in Egypt’s Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ) program, which gives products customs free access to the US market as long as they incorporate 11.7 percent of Israeli components.

Trumpeted as a major trade boost for Egypt, the deal inked last year with     Israel was met with widespread suspicion in a country where anti-semitism is rife.

“This accord is a failure, except for the interests of the losing party,” says Mahmud, referring to the National Democratic Party (NDP) led by President     Hosni Mubarak.

“We will not work with the Israelis who pocket our money to kill the Palestinians,” he adds.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1922 by Hassan al-Banna, has spawned groups such as the radical Palestinian group Hamas, while Egypt’s secular regime was the first Arab government to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

Saad al-Husseini, a Muslim brother who won his seat outright in the first round a week ago, shares the same opinion. “The accord has been signed to force Egypt to normalize relations with Israel and support its economy.”

But Ismael, a workman in a factory recently integrated in the QIZ program is less concerned.

“I don’t care about the NDP, Israel, or my factory,” he says.

“What is important for me is to work during the day to return home with some bread I can share with my daughters, watch a football game and listen to Umm Kalthoum,” the Egyptian diva still widely worshipped three decades after her death.

The influence of the Muslim Brothers, who have achieved spectacular gains so far in the elections, securing three times their current seat tally, with half of the election still to go, is quite obvious in this industrial town.

In the first three rounds of Egypt’s six polling rounds, the Brotherhood candidates, standing as independents, have already secured 43 seats in parliament, nearly trebling its previous tally of 15 MPs.

Magdi al-Sayed is a Brotherhood supporter. His bookshop is called “The Dawn of Islam” and offers an array of books and tapes “aimed at perfecting the religious culture of the neighbourhood’s residents”.

Some of his best-selling titles are “Only for married couples,” “Of men and desire,” “The behaviour of the Muslim civil servant,” “A husband’s duty to his wife”.

Sayed has no voter’s card. “If I had the right to vote, I would cast my ballot for the Muslim Brothers without hesitating. Their presence is crucial if this country is to achieve any kind of change and reform,” he said.

Samir el-Kadi works as an accountant in a textile factory in the area.

“I will vote for the Brothers because the NDP has become an empty shell. I do not believe in its electoral promises like the 4.5 million jobs promised by Mubarak,” he says, claiming that no jobs were created in his factory since 1993.

In this rural, unemployment-stricken, part the Delta, support for the ruling party is seldom encountered.

Mahmud Misbah, who runs a small shop selling bed linen and towels, says he does not support the Islamist movement but is angered nonetheless by “the regime’s blatant lies, accusing the Brothers of initiating the violence and buying votes.”

“Everybody knows these practices are those of the NDP,” he says.