In the tribal lands of western Egypt, the Bedouins may appear the same – long dresses, turbans, and sun-burnt complexions – but their political allegiances have shifted like the sands.
Months after backing Islamist politicians in parliamentary elections, many Bedouin tribesmen had thrown their support behind former dictator Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, instead of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate in this weekend’s runoff election for president.
“It was a disappointing partnership with the Islamists,” said Saleh Salem, a 32-year-old deputy chief of the Jebeihat, a powerful tribe that occupies lands stretching from the coastal Egyptian city of Alexandria and the Libyan port of Tobruk.
Noting the Egyptian constitutional court’s decision last week to dissolve Parliament on legal grounds – a move that was heavily criticized by the Brotherhood, the largest bloc in Parliament – Salem said, “This Parliament deserves being dissolved and I am endorsing Shafik for the presidency.”
The decision by Bedouin tribesmen such as Salem to support a holdover from the old regime – despite being severely marginalized during Mubarak’s 30 years of strongman rule – reflects the disillusionment felt by many Egyptians with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate, Mohammed Morsi, was contesting the presidential runoff against Shafik.
In interviews at a coffee shop in the seaside desert town of Marsa Matrouh, tribesmen expressed disappointment with the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, the ultraconservative Salafists, who together were the big winners in parliamentary elections last fall but have been outmaneuvered by the ruling military council in recent weeks. Morsi seemed likely to lose the presidential runoff to Shafik, with final results expected by Thursday.
Salem, who is prominent locally for his acres of olive trees, says his tribe lost all confidence in Islamists “because of their shameful performance as parliamentarians.”
“They started by turning their backs on us when it comes to community needs, and ended with sex scandals,” said Salem, referring to the Salafist Nour Party parliamentarian Ali Wanis who, according to security officials, was caught “performing public indecency with a girl in his car” last week.
But the tribesman had less respect for the Brotherhood than for the Salafists.
“The Muslim Brotherhood wants to impose their ideology on tribal customs and traditions that ruled this part of the world for hundreds of years.”
While millions of Egyptians refer to Shafik as “flool” – a disdainful term for remnants of the Mubarak regime – Salem accused the Islamists of being “like Mubarak, who never respected us, understood or even tried to understand us.”
“They want to invade this community and erase our tribal character,” he said.
Officials with the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Marsa Matroh, who were following the elections from their headquarters two blocks away from the coffee shop, expressed confidence that their candidate, Morsi, would prevail in the voting. But they acknowledged that their support had slipped.
“Some people lost confidence in us because they were fooled by the constant smear campaign led by the military government against us,” said Fouad Zaghlol, the party’s secretary-general in Marsa Matroh.
Zaghlol argued that the dissolution of Parliament, in which the Brotherhood held 47 percent of the seats, increased support for Morsi after people realized the “counter-revolutionary conspiracy” led by the ruling military council.
On Sunday, the second and last day of runoff voting, judges here complained about the low turnout. One polling station received less than quarter of its registered voters by Sunday afternoon, eight hours before voting ended.
Heavily armed military personnel were stationed at every polling station on the western coast leading to the Libyan border, from which countless weapons have been smuggled into Egypt since the uprisings in both nations began early last year.
Mahmoud Sharaf, who voted for Morsi on Sunday, had one month earlier voted for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the defected Muslim Brotherhood official.
“I am voting for Morsi because he comes from an Islamic ideology, from an organization that will apply Islamic law,” said Sharaf, a 45 year-old driver who covered his car windows with Nour Party logos.
But Salem, the tribesman, said he couldn’t trust Salafists “because of their changing decisions.”
“They might announce endorsing Shafik tomorrow,” he said.