Zagazig, Egypt - At first glance this city, the sprawling capital of Sharqiya governorate in the Nile Delta, would seem like fertile ground for Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for president.
He was born a few kilometres up the road, in the tiny village of el-Adwa, and spent more than a decade teaching at Zagazig University. His smiling face stares down from posters hung throughout the city; many residents are, by their own accounts, conservative and religious.
The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood’s political wing, did well here during parliamentary elections last year, taking 18 of the governorate’s 30 seats.
Yet in the presidential election, it was Ahmed Shafiq who won Sharqiya by more than 90,000 votes. The man, who was Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, reproduced that success elsewhere in the Delta, most spectacularly in Minoufia, Mubarak’s birthplace, where he received some 586,000 votes, more than double Morsi’s total.
Some of his opponents were quick to complain of fraud. But a visit to the governorate on Sunday illustrated that Shafiq has deep support in the region, particularly among lower- and middle-class voters. His status as one of the leading felool, the remnants of the old regime, seems to matter little.
“He will improve the country. He will answer the demands of the revolution: social justice, freedom, increasing people's incomes,” said Mohammed Abu Issa, the owner of a coffee shop in Bilbeis, about 20 kilometres south of Zagazig. “As Egyptian people we trust Ahmed Shafiq. He will do something.”
'With a strong hand'
The revolution, as experienced from Sharqiya, has been a somewhat abstract, far-off event; there have been few protests in this region. Mostly it has meant a weakened economy and deteriorating security. Mohammed El-Laban, standing in a tire shop in Zagazig, complained that basic goods have become more expensive: A kilo of sugar, once 3 Egyptian pounds ($0.50), now costs more than 5; cooking oil has nearly doubled in price.
An Ahmed Shafiq campaign poster, one of several, at Mohammed Abu Issa's coffee shop in Bilbeis
Cylinders of butane fuel, which many Egyptians use for cooking, must be purchased at exorbitant black-market prices because the government does not have enough to sell at the official subsidized price.
“And every day there is killing,” said Ashraf Selim Mohammed, a customer in Abu Issa’s coffee shop. “There are a lot of weapons on the streets. And if something happens, and we call the police, the police don’t come.”
A group of doctors, sitting in an upscale cafe, told a story of how a mutual friend was killed by thieves on the highway to Cairo. The gang wanted to steal the man's car and kidnap his daughter; when he resisted, they shot him. "Things have gone from bad to worse," one of the doctors said.
Shafiq has tried to capitalize on this insecurity, describing himself as the candidate best poised to restore order. A former military man - he was an air force officer, like Mubarak - he has promised, quite improbably, to restore security within 24 hours of taking office. That message seems to have swayed many voters in the Delta. “Shafiq will hold the country with a strong hand,” said Mahmoud Mohammed Mahmoud, a fruit vendor.
They’ve also been swayed by a very effective stream of anti-Brotherhood propaganda. Mahmoud described the Brotherhood as “terrorists,” and accused them of carrying out attacks “in America and Russia.”
Yahya Abdullah, a shopkeeper Shafiq volunteer in Zagazig, accused them of “carrying out massacres in Tunisia and Libya,” and said he’d seen the proof on Faraeen, a satellite channel owned by Tawfiq Okasha, a propagandist with close ties to Mubarak’s regime.
Still, there are very real grievances here with the Brotherhood, which only add to Shafiq’s support. In more than twenty interviews on Sunday, not a single person praised the parliament, which is dominated by a plurality from the FJP. “The Muslim Brotherhood, for 30 or 40 years, they have been trying to gain power,” said Abu Issa. “But when they got the parliament, they did nothing!”
Others said they were losing trust in the group, which has broken several pledges to limit its political ambitions. “They promised to compete only 30 per cent of the seats, and they competed 50 per cent,” said Ahmed Alaa, a doctor in Zagazig who voted for leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi in the first round and now plans to abstain.
“They promised not to run a presidential candidate, and they ran two. They believe the ends justify the means,” he said.
Several people warned that a Morsi victory would give the Brotherhood control of two branches of government, and likened it to the now-defunct National Democratic Party, which ruled Egypt for decades.
“Shafiq will rebuild the previous regime, yes, but the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrated everything,” said Mohamed el-Dahmashawy. “If the Muslim Brotherhood rule, we won't be able to get rid of them. It will take another 60 years.”
'I hate Shafiq more'
Morsi is not without his supporters, of course. A housewife in Yahya Abdullah’s shop, who said her name was “not important,” praised his Islamic values. Samir Saber, an engineer, called Morsi an intellectual, and said his support from a strong political party would be helpful.
“I want Morsi to carry out an-Nahda,” referring to his campaign platform, the “Renaissance project.” “This project was written down. So we will compare what he does to what he says in the programme,” Saber said.
Mahmoud Badawi, a veterinarian and the son of a former Muslim Brotherhood activist, said the warnings of a Muslim Brotherhood “takeover” were overblown. “They’ve actually lost support since the parliamentary election... so they're not all-powerful. They're not a very big group. And they have a programme that is different from the previous 30 years.”
But Morsi’s challenge, at least in Sharqiya, will be to rally support from voters who initially backed other candidates. Analysts think most of former Arab League chief Amr Moussa’s votes will go to Shafiq. That leaves Morsi to compete for those who backed Sabbahi or Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a moderate Islamist and a former member of the Brotherhood.
Many of those voters in Sharqiya were deeply unenthusiastic about Morsi’s candidacy. “I hate the Muslim Brotherhood, but I hate Shafiq more,” said Haitham al-Desouki, a doctor and Sabbahi supporter who said he would begrudgingly vote for Morsi. “The next four years are going to be black, in every aspect of life.”
Yet only a handful of the Aboul Fotouh supporters, and none of the Sabbahi backers, said they would vote for Shafiq. So in the runoff, the two main voting blocs here could be Shafiq supporters and those who simply abstain from the vote. That bodes well for Shafiq, given his first-round victory.
“Is this freedom of choice? You have two choices, and you don’t like either one,” said Alaa. “The handling of the revolution was wrong, and now we’ve gained what we grew.”