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, The Associated Press reported.
“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.
On Saturday, Mohamed Morsi, president of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), told Egypt’s al-Ahram daily that his party did not plan on banning alcohol in hotels and at tourist resorts or prevent Egyptians from drinking liquor in their homes.
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.
Speaking at a public rally in the southern Egyptian governorate of Aswan on Monday, al-Nour party spokesman Nader Bakar clarified that the party would only allow tourists to drink liquor they brought with them from abroad, and only in their hotel rooms, an Egyptian daily reported on Tuesday.
In a report carried by Egypt’s al-Ahram daily, Bakar said that the party did not plan to set any restrictions on tourism related to Egyptian antiquities, such as the Great Pyramids of Giza and ancient Egyptian temples.
Bakar was quoted by the newspaper as saying that the Nour Party would establish a chain of hotels that would function in compliance with the sharia (Islamic Law), while banning beach tourism, which he said “indices vice.”
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, AP reported that the 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 Nour Party won 19 per cent of the vote in the first round of Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls late last month, while the FJP secured 37 per cent.
Both parties’ talk prompted an outcry from hundreds of tour guides and the minister of tourism, who recently held a demonstration at the steps of the Great Pyramid. They asserted that each speech by the Islamists translated into reservation cancellations.
Tourism minister, Munir 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 Middle East News Agency. “No one will be able to destroy or threaten this industry,” he added.
The Salafis 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 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 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 Salafis, are presenting ideas for restrictions on tourism. Bourhami calls it “halal tourism,” using the term for food that is ritually fit under sharia.
“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 TV 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 sharia position, so I don’t want to give an answer,” he said.
During Sunday’s campaign event for the Muslim Brotherhood, candidate al-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, Ahmed el-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, according to AP.
Some Salafis acknowledge their approach could mean losses for the industry but propose ways to compensate, like promoting medical tourism or religious and educational tourism.