FIRST came unsigned leaflets claiming that the candidate for the Egyptian Bloc, a secularist group, was a communist atheist. Then pamphlets accusing him of being a capitalist crony of the disgraced former regime appeared. Other rumours swirled around the parliamentary district in rural Upper Egypt where he was standing. Some said the Egyptian Bloc was backed by Freemasons and Jews. Others fingered the Coptic Church. On the morning of the vote, pick-up trucks mounted with megaphones fanned out to deliver a coup de grace. Congratulations to the Egyptian Bloc, they blared. Its candidate has been appointed a cabinet minister in Cairo and has withdrawn from the race.
Politics is a rough game everywhere. As it happens the Egyptian Bloc won that seat anyway. But one might have expected a gentler touch from the Islamist parties contesting Egypt's first free parliamentary elections in decades, which enter the second of three regional rounds of voting this week. The Islamists claim the high moral ground, saying they want a return to the principles and values of the pure faith. Yet Egypt's two main Islamist political forces, the Muslim Brotherhood and the puritan Salafists, which together look set to capture as many as two thirds of parliamentary seats, are playing electoral hardball not only against their secular opponents, but against each other too.
What strikes me is that not more dirty tricks have been used against Islamists. The former regime use to be pretty good at it, and they are vulnerable to charges of working for foreign interests (Saudi, Iran...) as well as (perversely) accusations of religious heresy: Salafis as against traditional Islam (the Sufi line) or crypto-al-Qaeda, Muslim Brothers as being a secret society with a bizarre worship of Hassan al-Banna (a frequent Salafi line of attack), use their morality against them by staging sting operations, alleging affairs, etc. Granted some of this has been done by secularists complaining about the Salafis being Saudi-funded, but that's pretty minor compared to the Salafis' (illegal) use of mosques for electioneering, etc.