Cairo—Osama Shaltut claims to descend from the Prophet Mohammed and the centrepiece of his campaign for the Egyptian presidency is a promise to convert the entire world to Islam.
The 66-year-old leader of the Solidarity Party, who wears a broad smile and a neatly-trimmed beard, does not like wasting time.
“Why wait?” he asks. “The whole world should convert to Islam. Now.”
Shaltut, the only Islamist candidate in Egypt’s September 7 presidential election, nevertheless knows he will have to wait before he can unseat President Hosni Mubarak, who is widely expected to be re-elected.
When he introduces himself, Shaltut requests he be addressed as “Sharif” due to his holy ancestry or “Doctor” owing to his PhD in accounting.
His programme, he says, is threefold.
“First, let’s gather the leaders of all religions. Then, let’s apply their principles and assess the results . . . Finally, let’s proclaim the victory of Islam.”
But Shaltut admits such a process “would take around 10 years”, so he advocates a universal conversion to Islam to speed things up and “for the good of humanity”.
Egypt is a 90% Muslim country where radical views are widespread and, to convince recalcitrant voters, Shaltut has also launched a mass SMS campaign, using mobile phone text messaging to spread his views.
Shaltut counts on the Egyptian people and Allah to help him in the campaign but says the battlefield is uneven, joining the chorus of opposition allegations against the regime.
“Mubarak will stuff the ballots, as usual . . . Since the Pharaohs, Egypt has always been in the business of fraud and forgery,” says Shaltut, who hails from Upper Egypt.
The politician concedes that the Egyptian population is very attached to its pre-Islamic past and explains that led him to chose the pyramid as his campaign logo.
“There are lots of very modest people, many of them illiterate and I needed an easily recognisable symbol.”
He had initially set his sights on the moon crescent, an Islamic symbol, “but Mubarak took it.”
He comforts himself by pointing out that the symbol might not necessarily bring Mubarak luck because his uncle, Mahmud Shaltut, issued a 1959 fatwa banning trips to the moon when he was the sheikh of Al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam.
When asked about his relations with the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, Shaltut smiles and says: “I am the brothers’ brother.”
The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest opposition group in Egypt and since it was not allowed to field a candidate in the election it was courted by most parties running in the September poll.
“I refuse to kiss their hands and their feet like the others have done,” he snaps, in a jab at Ayman Nur, the secular Ghad (Tomorrow) party leader who ostensibly took part in a prayer with the Brotherhood’s supreme leader to seek his endorsement.
Shaltut points out that sharia, or Islamic law, requires a woman to wear the veil but he stresses that he is against imposing it, adding that Islam opposes the niqab, the full head-to-toe veil.
In his campaign headquarters, some women are veiled, others are not.
He advises all Egyptians not to deposit their money in foreign bank accounts, but denies promoting anti-western ideas.
When asked about events such as the September 11 attacks or the US invasion of Iraq, he brands Osama bin Laden a “stinking dog” and a “bastard” and Saddam Hussein a “psychopath”.
His newspaper carried a vitriolic article on alleged sexual harassment by Israeli soldiers against young Palestinian women, but his views on the Jewish state nevertheless appear less radical than those of other candidates or the leftist opposition.
“When we were young, we wanted to drive the Israelis into the sea, now all this is over,” he says.
Shaltut, a former officer during the 1973 Yom Kippur war between Israel and Egypt, even advises Palestinian refugees to waive their right of return.
“They have a better life in the countries where they are now, such as Lebanon or Egypt.”