Egypt Islamists offer vision for sin-free tourism

By Maggie Michael

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 12 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

An Egyptian passes under electoral posters with pictures of candidates of the Salafi Al-Nour party and Arabic that reads, "Said Maghawri, and Ahmed Ibrahim," in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Dec. 12, 2011. Some newly empowered Islamists have a message for foreign tourists: welcome to Egypt, but no booze, bikinis or mixed bathing at beaches, please. The vision of turning the country into a sin-free vacation spot could spell doom for a pillar of the economy already battered by political unrest. "Tourists don't need to drink alcohol when they come to Egypt; they have plenty at home," one Muslim Brotherhood candidate told a cheering crowd.

Amr Nabil, Associated Press

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 on 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 Salafi 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 Salafis 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 el-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 Salafis, 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 Salafi 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 el-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."

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