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A charismatic sheikh shakes up Egyptian politics

With talk of Pepsi boycotts and gender segregation, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail tries to channel his personal magnetism into party-wide success at the polls.

CAIRO, Egypt — He was endorsed by Al Qaeda and wants to ban nutmeg for its hallucinogenic drug potential.

During Egypt’s presidential campaign last year, candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an ultraconservative cleric-turned-politician, urged his loyal followers to boycott Pepsi. The soda’s profits go to Israel, he said.

After a months-long respite, Ismail is back in the spotlight brandishing his eccentric, populist message of Islamist nationalism and anti-Western rhetoric. It’s appealing to a growing base of supporters who are drawn to the sheikh’s charisma and who are clamoring for a sense of national pride.

Conservative, even a bit wacky, but an early supporter of Egypt’s revolution, the hardline Ismail capitalized on the fresh visibility he garnered in the wake of the country’s recent tumult to revive his own stalled political ambitions. He was disqualified from the presidential race a year ago.

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During the unrest last month, his forces publicly went to bat for the embattled President Mohamed Morsi in his fight against opposition forces over the constitution — besieging media offices and attacking police stations.

Since then, the 52-year-old Ismail has announced the formation of his own political party, television channel and newspaper, and has helped inaugurate the newly-formed Salafi-Islamist Watan Party for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

He is a rising if alarming force in Egyptian politics, and may have the most to gain from the country’s first polls outside military rule.

“He knows how to capture hearts and bring people together,” said Sameh Abdul Hamid, an official with the Salafi Al Nour Party in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city. Al Nour officials have said there will be no electoral alliance with Ismail, but that doesn’t mean he’s not popular among the party ranks.

“Like any politician, he has enemies — but he is a patriot,” Hamid said. “And many in the Salafi movement love him.”

Whether or not Ismail can channel his personal magnetism — based on revolutionary pronouncements and vocal religious fervor from his years preaching at the mosque — into party-wide success in legislative polls remains unclear.

He may scare off many Egyptian liberals with his talk of Pepsi boycotts, gender segregation, and prohibition of beach tourism. His previous presidential platform called for snubbing trade with the West in favor of a so-called “agricultural renaissance” in Egypt’s vast, desert wastelands. He also wants to end the decades-old peace treaty with Israel.

But the way in which Ismail and his army of volunteers handled his presidential campaign last year — plastering his posters on what seemed like every building, bus, fruit stand and coffee shop — suggests he understands the importance of grassroots campaigning.

An electoral commission barred him from the race because his deceased mother once held US citizenship. But at one point, he was polling second behind former diplomat, Amr Moussa, in a survey published by the state-run Al Ahram newspaper.

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“He doesn’t have the organizational infrastructure or a social base to back him financially and organizationally,” said Khalil Al Anani, an observer of Islamist movements and scholar at Durham University in the United Kingdom. “But his bloc will take some seats and he himself is likely to win a seat in parliament.”

Electoral alliances are still forming ahead of what some reports say will be April elections for a new lower house of parliament, and any party that teams up with Ismail is likely in for a wild ride.

Even members well-established in the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Ismail was once also a supporter, are impressed with his political prowess, though Brotherhood officials largely rule out a political coalition with Ismail.

“He has yet to really capitalize on this post-revolution popularity,” said Ibrahim Al Iraqi, a Brotherhood leader in the Daqhleya province outside Cairo. “If he backs up his promises with real action, he could, just like anyone with his kind of political prominence in the street, be the new Saad Zaghloul.”

Zaghloul is an early 20th-century revolutionary statesman and Egyptian nationalist leader that helped guide the 1919-1920 revolt against British forces.

Ismail may not rise to such prominence. But for now he is a useful ally for both Salafi forces and President Morsi, who needs the cleric’s ardent supporters as shock troops for their political street battles.

At an Ismail-sponsored sit-in outside the Media Production City in Cairo last month, his followers slept on mattresses, rigged toilets to the sewage system, and harassed journalists they said were hostile to Islamists.

“In the case of the constitution, he was an invaluable ally and largely continues to be so,” Al Nour’s Hamid said. Al Nour party representatives dominated the constituent assembly body along with the Brotherhood.

Ismail’s Islamist allies insist he is a moderate, demonized by a political landscape long shaped by the state’s historical suspicion of Islamists.  

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“He is a moderate man, and his principles are moderate. Not like he is depicted in the media,” Al Iraqi said. “We must stop being afraid of extremists from either side of the political spectrum.”

Heba Habib contributed reporting.