CAIRO: Islamists are dominating Egypt’s elections and some of them have a new message for tourists: Welcome, but no booze, bikinis or mixed bathing at beaches, please.
That vision of turning Egypt into a sin-free vacation spot could spell doom for a key pillar of the economy that has already been badly battered by this year’s political unrest.
“Tourists don’t need to drink alcohol when they come to Egypt; they have plenty at home,” a veiled Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Azza al-Jarf, told a cheering crowd of supporters Sunday across the street from the Pyramids.
“They came to see the ancient civilization, not to drink alcohol,” she said, her voice booming through a set of loudspeakers at a campaign event dubbed “Let’s encourage tourism.”
The crowd chanted, “Tourism will be at its best under Freedom and Justice,” the Brotherhood’s party and the most influential political group to emerge from the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
Since their success in the first round of parliamentary elections on Nov. 28-29, the Brotherhood and the even more fundamentalist party of Salafist Muslims called Al-Nour have been under pressure from media and the public to define their stance on a wide range of issues, especially those related to Islamic law, personal freedoms, the rights of women and minorities, the flagging economy and tourism.
The Salafists of Al-Nour are up front about seeking to impose strict Islamic law in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood says publicly that it does not seek to force its views about an appropriate Islamic lifestyle on Egyptians.
Critics say remarks by members of both parties meant to reassure the nation that they don’t seek to damage tourism are having the opposite effect.
Egypt’s year of political upheaval has hit the economy hard and shaken investor confidence. On Sunday, the new interim Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri broke into tears in front of journalists as he spoke about the state of the economy, saying it was “worse than anyone imagines.”
Turning around the decline in tourism is key to breathing life back into the economy. But tourism presents something of an ideological conundrum for the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Nour.
The two parties came in first and second, respectively, in first-round results in the voting, which is staggered and continues through January. Together, they’ve won an overwhelming majority of votes.
The Salafists, who follow the Wahhabi school of thought that predominates in Saudi Arabia, are clear in their opposition to alcohol and skimpy beachwear. And they’re still wavering on the issues of unmarried couples sharing hotel rooms and the display of ancient Egyptian statues like fertility gods that they believe clash with conservative Islamic sensibilities.
At a Salafist rally in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria recently, party loyalists covered up mermaid statues on a public fountain with cloth.
The Muslim Brotherhood, a more pragmatic political force, has sent mixed messages, reflecting perhaps the influence of some who would be more inclined to leave tourism alone for the sake of the economy.
Brotherhood and Al-Nour party leaders toured ancient monuments over the past couple of days in an attempt to show they’re supporting tourism, releasing pictures of themselves smiling and shaking hands with visitors.
One Al-Nour party spokesman in the ancient city of Aswan told a gathering: “We are not going to close temples, we are not going to order the tourists to cover up or put restrictions on their freedoms.”
Brotherhood leader Saad al-Katatni is also now espousing a hands-off approach. “Tourism is not all about what to eat, drink or wear ... We have nothing to do with beaches,” he told the semi-official Al-Ahram daily.
But in August, he told tourism officials that “Egypt is a pious country and the beach tourism and bikini should not be in public beaches.”
Also, clerics like Yasser Bourhami, influential among hard-line Salafists, are presenting ideas for restrictions on tourism. Bourhami calls it “halal tourism,” using the term for food that is ritually fit under Islamic law.
“A five-star hotel with no alcohol, a beach for women – sisters – separated from men in a bay where the two sides can enjoy a vacation for a week without sins,” he said in an interview with private television network Dream TV. “The tourist doesn’t have to swim with a bikini and harm our youth.”
A leading member of Al-Nour, Tarek Shalaan, stumbled through a recent television interview when asked about his views on the display of nude pharaonic statues like those depicting fertility gods.
“The antiquities that we have will be put under a different light to focus on historical events,” he said, without explaining further.
He also failed to explain whether hotel reception clerks will have to start demanding marriage certificates from couples checking in together.
“Honestly, I don’t know the Shariah position, so I don’t want to give an answer,” he said.
During Sunday’s campaign event for the Muslim Brotherhood, candidate Jarf said the new approach doesn’t have to spell the end of tourism.
“Foreigners respect traditions, they didn’t come here for nudity,” she told a crowd in a middle class district of Giza steps away from the Pyramids where many residents work in tourism.
Another candidate at the event, Ahmad al-Khouli, promised they would draw millions more tourists and criticized members of rival, secular parties who he said “promote nudity and prostitution in Egypt” for the sake of attracting tourist dollars.
Tourism accounts for roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product, employs an estimated 3 million of Egypt’s 85 million people, and is one of the top three mainstays of the economy, along with Suez Canal fees and remittances.
Huge swaths of the country, like the Red Sea shores with their stunning coral reefs and Nile Valley cities like Luxor with their ancient temples and tombs, are solely dependent on tourism.
This year, tourist arrivals fell more than 35 percent in the second quarter, according to government figures.
Still, residents of Luxor and Red Sea province voted in large numbers for the Islamists, which opponents said was a result of the parties feeding a “feeling of guilt” over things like serving alcohol.
Some Salafists acknowledge their approach could mean losses for the industry but propose ways to compensate, like promoting medical tourism or religious and educational tourism.
Their talk prompted an outcry from hundreds of tour guides and the tourism minister, who recently held a demonstration at the steps of the Great Pyramid. They asserted that each speech by the Islamists translated into reservation cancellations.
The minister, Mounir Fakhri Abdul-Nour, said the impact of religious edicts, or fatwas, on tourism is as bad as the impact from Egypt’s security troubles.
“The tourism industry is facing a double challenge: security ... and the fatwas,” Abdul-Nour said Monday, according to Egypt’s state-run news agency. “No one will be able to destroy or threaten this industry.”