x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Egyptian candidates use their beards to lure votes

Political candidates in Egypt use facial hair to subtly persuade voters of their character.

Egyptian veiled women walk past an election campaign billboard for the Islamist, Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) as voters go to polling stations for the run-off of the first round of voting in the Cairo neighbourhood of Nasser City in December. AFP PHOTO/ODD ANDERSEN
Egyptian veiled women walk past an election campaign billboard for the Islamist, Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) as voters go to polling stations for the run-off of the first round of voting in the Cairo neighbourhood of Nasser City in December. AFP PHOTO/ODD ANDERSEN

CAIRO // Just before Khairat Al Shater declared his bid for the presidency, he shaved off his moustache.

It was perhaps the first explicit confirmation of a new era of beard politics dawning in Egypt, where candidates for political office use facial hair to subtly persuade voters of their character.

Mr Al Shater's gesture has positioned the Islamist as a man who straddles the divide between the moderate members of the Muslim Brotherhood - of which he is the deputy leader - and the more conservative Salafists, who often wear beards without moustaches in the belief that it is what the Prophet Mohammed wore in the 6th and 7th centuries.

Mr Al Shater, a prominent businessman who was arrested several times by the Hosni Mubarak regime for his work with the Muslim Brotherhood, remained as a behind-the-scenes power broker until his candidacy for president. He has now emerged as one of the front-runners in the elections scheduled for next month.

"Khairat Al Shater is a good merchant, a good businessman," said Mohamed Ashoub, the famed hairdresser and make-up artist for Egyptian cinema who had in the past prepared Mr Mubarak's hair and make-up for TV appearances. "He knows what sells."

A follicle-deep analysis of the 23 candidates for the presidency - several of whom may be disqualified pending lawsuits - reveals a spectrum of hairstyles. Mr Ashoub said each candidate's choice gave hints about their personality.

Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief of Mubarak who wears a thin moustache, is "stubborn and mysterious", he said. Amr Moussa's longer salt and pepper cut had the air of a "socialite". The closely trimmed white hair and shaved face of Mohammed Selim Al Awa, an Islamic constitutional scholar, "longs for power".

And Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafist lawyer who has by far the longest and whitest beard, wears a "mask of spirituality", Mr Ashoub said.

Whether Mr Al Shater purposely shaved his moustache to appear more palatable to the Salafist vote is up for debate. When his campaign posters debuted on March 31, an image of Mr Al Shater appeared with a wise grin and hairless upper lip, superimposed over an Egyptian flag. Before that, images showed a thin moustache.

Mr Al Shater did not respond to an inquiry sent to his email address about the trim.

H A Hellyer, a geostrategic analyst in Cairo, said it was "plausibly" a political move.

"Shater may have shaven his moustache to appeal to those Salafis who think to do so is religiously meritorious - even though there exists a difference of opinion among Salafis in general in that respect," he said.

Sameh El Shahat, an Egyptian who advises on brand identity as the president of the London- and China-based risk consultancy China-I Ltd, said piety is becoming a salient political issue in Egypt and "therefore an important factor in the image of politicians".

For Egypt's two largest political parties, religion is "their manifesto and coming across as devout is an important part of their image, if not the most important", Mr El Shahat said from London.

Striking a chord with voters on a personal level has become vital in the months of campaigning before the presidential elections expected to be held on May 23 and 24. The removal of the Mubarak regime left a "gaping vacuum of public and political identity" to be filled, said Charles Holmes, a consultant at the US-based political risk firm Marcher International who has done extensive work in Egypt.

What is clear is that there will be little time for extensive debate about the political platforms of each candidate, he said. The parliamentary elections that started last November and finished in February showed that candidates could still be successful, even if they were political novices without firm views on the most pressing issues for Egypt. The Salafist Al Nour Party, for instance, won about a quarter of the seats in the elections without a clear agenda.

In some ways, Mr Holmes said, the Islamists have the easiest job when it comes to connecting with voters because of their "ready-made identity", referring to the use of religious slogans and signs of piety through their appearance.

 

bhope@thenational.ae