Less than a week ago, thousands of Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail’s supporters marched to the Presidential Elections Commission to accompany the Salafi presidential hopeful as he filed his nomination papers. The celebratory march followed a blitz of poster campaigning that has made Abu Ismail’s face a ubiquitous sight on the streets of Cairo. The hype around the Salafi’s campaign was making headlines and, suddenly, raising expectations for Abu Ismail’s chances at the polls.
But today, this robust presidential run seems to be in jeopardy, as the 51-year-old lawyer-turned-preacher might be disqualified for his mother’s alleged dual Egyptian-American citizenship. His potential exclusion from the race may favor the Muslim Brotherhood’s recently nominated candidate, Khairat al-Shater, but could also provoke an uproar from his thousands of dedicated backers who pinned their hopes on Abu Ismail to implement God’s law.
Their disappointment might lead to further radicalization.
In recent days, reports about Abu Ismail’s mother having US citizenship have made headlines in the local press and TV news talk shows. If true, Abu Ismail’s candidacy application would be turned down, as Egyptian law stipulates that a presidential candidate must be born to Egyptian parents who have never held a second nationality.
Abu Ismail denied these reports, claiming that his mother held an American green card but was never granted a US passport. In the meantime, he filed a lawsuit against the Interior Ministry and Presidential Elections Commission, demanding that they release official documents proving his mother was never a dual citizen.
On Wednesday, the New York Times dealt another blow to Abu Ismail's campaign. It cited California public records and a Los Angeles voter registration website to prove that his mother became an American citizen before she died.
Abu Ismail's supporters deny the possibility that their potential nominee could be excluded from the race for technical reasons. They hold that recent reports about Abu Ismail’s mother are attempts by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the West to exclude him, due to his strict commitment to Islamic Sharia and vehement opposition to the generals.
"The security apparatus and the intelligence [services] are probably conspiring with the Americans to fake an American citizenship for Sheikh Hazem's mother," Mohamed Elhamy, a 29-year-old campaigner alleged.
"We will not let them disqualify him," he vowed.
Elhamy, a communications engineer, added that getting Abu Ismail elected is "a life-or-death matter" for his followers, arguing that he is the only presidential hopeful capable of "redeeming the state from military rule."
In the lead-up to the revolution, Abu Ismail had been preaching the Salafi doctrine, which adopts a literal interpretation of Islam, on privately owned satellite TV channels. During the 18-day uprising that culminated in Hosni Mubarak's ouster last year, he was seen in Tahrir Square among his fans, calling on protesters to never give up.
Last summer, Abu Ismail decided that he would run for president. For months, he appeared in the media making inflammatory statements about how Sharia would be implemented in government. In August, he told a TV show that a Muslim ruler is required by divine law to ensure that all rituals are observed, including prayers and that women are covered.
At the same time, Abu Ismail established himself as a vehement critic of the SCAF’s performance and consistently warned of the generals' alleged attempts to hijack the revolution. Thanks to his strict religious outlook and revolutionary discourse, Abu Ismail attracted the support of thousands of young Islamists who felt frustrated with the acquiescent discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi leaders.
"He has filled a void in the circles of Islamist youth," said Mohamed Yosry, a Salafi columnist. "These youth are mostly supportive of the revolution and averse to the regime and the SCAF. In the meantime, they seek an Islamist leader."
Last month, one of Abu Ismail's promoters told Egypt Independent that his presidential run has 120,000 campaigners nationwide. The figure sounded overblown until Abu Ismail arrived at the Presidential Elections Commission last week with over 150,000 signatures from eligible voters, far surpassing the 30,000 requirement.
"He will not be disqualified. Otherwise we will take to the streets in millions," Gamal Saber, another Abu Ismail campaigner, said.
"I have called for a million-man march on Friday to say that we will not accept any form of fraudulence or attempts to mess with our fate," added the founder of the “Hazem is a Must” campaign.
"Hazem is the man we have been awaiting for decades. He brings the hope of reviving Islamic Sharia," added Saber.
The Presidential Elections Commission is the sole judicial body tasked with handing down verdicts on the eligibility of nominees. There is no legal avenue to appeal the commission’s decisions.
The commission is expected to announce the final list of presidential candidates who meet qualification requirements on 26 April. So far, 11 potential candidates have filled nomination papers. The 12th request is expected to be presented Thursday by Khairat al-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood deputy supreme guide who resigned from his post to run in the race.
The imminent exclusion of Abu Ismail is expected to enhance the chances of the 62-year-old Brotherhood leader, widely viewed as the group’s most influential member. Shater is entering the race at the last minute and has little time to catch up with other nominees’ campaigns, which have been unofficially rolling along for months.
According to Khalil al-Anani, a political scientist with Durham University and an expert on Islamist movements, the majority of Abu Ismail’s backers will likely vote for Shater if the former fails to make it onto the ballot.
"They won't vote for Shater as a person but as a representative of the Islamist project," said Anani, who ruled out the possibility of Abu Ismail's votes going to Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, the former Brotherhood leader known for his moderate outlook.
"They do not think Abouel Fotouh is adherent to the Islamist project. They think Shater is more adherent and loyal to the Islamist project," he said.
Anani suspects the radicalization of Abu-Ismail's supporters if Shater loses the race.
"Frankly, I am worried about the reaction of these people, especially if Shater loses," said Anani. "They will feel hugely disappointed and this can push some of the grassroots to become more radical."
Anani voiced fears that the disappointment could prompt these young, enthusiastic Islamists to embrace jihadi Salafism.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood is known for promoting a less intransigent version of Islam, Salafi doctrine has already penetrated its ranks, mainly through members who have lived in Saudi Arabia, the seat of Wahhabi beliefs.
Shater is believed to be one of the prominent pro-Salafi voices within the nation's oldest Islamist organization. Since his release from prison in March 2011, he has sought to build bridges with Salafi groups.
"Shater was smart enough to realize the importance of the Salafi movement and the Brothers' mistake of neglecting it," said Yosry, the Salafi columnist.
Shater joined the Jurisprudence Commission for Rights and Reform, a religious organization formed by mostly Salafi clerics, after Mubarak’s ouster. His Salafi connections might explain why some leaders of the Nour Party, the political wing of the Salafi Dawa, Egypt’s largest Salafi movement, had asked the Brotherhood to field Shater for the presidency.
In fact, the Nour leadership has been reluctant to endorse Abu Ismail, due to his sharp critique of the generals. It has had a hard time dissuading its members from backing the sole Salafi presidential hopeful.
The nomination of a Muslim Brother, known for his Salafi affinities and cautious discourse concerning the military, might offer a lifeline for Salafi leaders who seek to maintain organizational discipline and cohesion.
Yosry, a former leader of the Salafi Nour Party, disagreed with Anani’s assessment, ruling out that young Salafis who have thrown their full backing behind Abu Ismail could shift to Shater.
“[The youth] were convinced by Abu Ismail’s persona and it is hard to convince them of Shater,” he said, adding that to Abu Ismail’s Salafi backers, Shater stands for the Brotherhood’s equivocating positions.
Earlier this week, Abu Ismail met with the leaders of the Salafi Dawa. The preachers reportedly asked him to give up his candidacy to avoid splitting the Islamist vote, and in return be named Shater’s vice president should he win the election. Abu Ismail reportedly refused.
"His withdrawal is not acceptable at all by his campaigners," said Elhamy. "[Abu Ismail] has become representative of a popular trend and cannot withdraw. Even if he considers it, we will not allow him to do it."