CAIRO The hardline Salafists surging in Egypt's first free elections suffered an unexpected setback on Wednesday when a prominent spokesman lost a run-off vote to an independent candidate backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abdel Moneim el-Shahat was one of the most outspoken candidates of the Salafist Al-Nour party, which stunned Egyptians by winning 24 percent of the first round of voting last week against 36 percent for the more pragmatic Brotherhood.
During the campaign, the bearded engineer outraged more moderate Egyptians with his clear calls for Salafi Islam - a strict interpretation inspired by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi sect - to be made the law of the land in Egypt.
His defeat in the run-off in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria came because liberal, Christian and young voters rallied behind the independent Hosni Dewidar, who also had the Brotherhood's endorsement.
"The Brotherhood doesn't represent me, but they are better than the Salafis," Coptic law student Beshoy Gerges, 23, said in Alexandria. "I would rather die than have a Salafi represent me in parliament."
COMPARISONS WITH THE TALIBAN
Shahat, who is highly popular among Egypt's Salafis, aroused unpleasant memories of Afghanistan's hardline Taliban when it was reported he wanted priceless statues of Egypt's pharaohs to be covered or destroyed because they amounted to idolatry, which is strictly forbidden in Islam.
The Taliban blew up two ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan in 2001, also arguing that the pre-Islamic art was idolatrous.
Shahat denied the statues should be smashed, but the remarks raised questions about the lengths to which the Salafis would go to make Egypt conform to early Islam.
"If people want to see these statues and they bring income, and if it is proven that sharia does not allow them to remain as they are, then cover them with wax," he told Dream Television. "People would be able to see through wax."
During a television interview last week, Shahat also angered many intellectuals by trashing the novels of Nobel Literature Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz as books "inciting promiscuity, prostitution and atheism."
"We have not had a revolution so that the likes of Shahat come to smear our cultural symbols and call us atheists as soon as they start rising to power," novelist and critic Howeida Saleh told the daily Al Ahram.
Even though Al Nour appeared to have lost out in most of the run-offs it took part in over the past two days, its strong showing in the initial phase of voting looks certain to guarantee it a sizeable chunk of seats in the next parliament.
LAYING DOWN THE LAW
Shahat, spokesman for the Salafi Call umbrella group that includes the Al Nour party, told Reuters before the election that his party would be flexible in enforcing sharia, the Islamic moral and legal code. "We won't force it on you, so the country doesn't turn into a battlefield," he said in Alexandria.
But he made clear Al Nour took a narrow view of what should and should not be allowed in the new Egypt.
"In controversial issues, we are open to what early Muslims were open to and we refuse what they refused," he said, referring to the strict teachings of the early Muslims.
"For things that need a general law, religious doctrine ends the argument," he said, adding Islamic doctrine could be interpreted by an oversight board of senior Islamic scholars from Al Azhar, the famous seat of Sunni learning based in Cairo.
Shahat was blunt about second class status for the Copts, the Egyptian Christians who make up about 10 percent of the population and fear the Salafis will limit their rights strictly if they get into a position to shape future legislature.
"We are very clear about Copts in high posts," he said. "It is neither logical nor religiously or constitutionally valid that they can hold the post of presidency.
"A Copt shouldn't assume authority over Muslims."