Figures linked to the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak have returned to prominence in Upper Egypt, according to activists in Assiut.
They have been campaigning for retired army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in next week's presidential election.
Large banners supporting El-Sisi adorn the main train station and the governorate building, while small posters backing his election rival, Nasserist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, can be found glued to lampposts.
During the three-decade rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Assiut was a stronghold of Gamaa Islamiya, the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and other Islamist groups.
But according to locals, most have either fled, been detained or denied their affiliation to these groups. This comes amid a security crackdown against supporters of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted in July 2013.
Their departure has cleared the stage for a return to prominence of figures linked to the Mubarak regime.
In cities like Assiut, where people know each other by name and face, Islamists are struggling to hide their political affiliation.
“It’s a small city, (Islamists) cannot hide, we all know each other,” a local taxi driver said.
“Unlike Cairo, they can't move around without being traced,” he added.
Hamdeen Sabahi's logo outside the campaigning office in Assiut (Photo: Mariam Rizk)
Morsi was ousted after days of mass protests against his rule. Since then, hundreds of his supporters have been killed and thousands detained, mostly on charges of committing violence and joining a banned group.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been officially labelled a terrorist group by the interim authorities.
Once powerful in Assiut, Islamists appear to have disappeared, according to Mohamed Ali, a leader of Sisi’s campaign in the city.
Some have left for good, he said, while others have returned on condition of keeping a low profile, in what appears to be a tacit deal with the security forces.
“During [Islamist] rule, you would feel they had a certain kind of authority,” Ali said. “But now, and especially in the towns, it’s a tribal system, so no one from the Brotherhood would dare to defy the majority.”
Some have shaved their beards in order to be less conspicuous, locals said.
When asked for a comment, a prominent member of the Gamaa Islamiya refused to speak publicly.
“We’re very busy with the trials (involving group members),” he added.
Another Islamist activist refused to speak to Ahram Online, saying those who do so always get in trouble.
“It could be good for your article, but it might cost a soul,” he said.
“I know someone from a terrorist group, we need to get him in trouble,” a local man said, half in jest, half seriously.
Islamists benefited from government failures
The wide base of Islamist support and the impact of their social and religious work developed hand in hand with rising poverty, illiteracy, political apathy and the government's endemic neglect of the south.
Assiut is the poorest city in Egypt.
Out of nearly 3.8 million inhabitants, 69 percent live below the poverty line and 39 percent are illiterate, according to official figures from 2011. Many towns do not have electricity or sewage systems.
“Islamists took advantage of the poverty and lack of development. They penetrated schools and universities,” said Magda Farrag, another leading figure in Sisi’s campaign in Assiut.
“A fresh graduate who joined them would get an apartment, a monthly salary and a job,” asserted Farrag, who is also a member of the Nasserist party.
Few non-governmental organisations work on the ground in the south. Most are based in the capital.
Mohamed Fahmy Saleh, a former NDP member in his office in Assiut (Photo: Mariam Rizk)
Mubarak loyalists making a comeback
Attempting to take advantage of the unpopularity of Islamists, former members of Hosni Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) have returned to the scene, said Ali Abou Hemeid, a leading member of the liberal Constitution Party in Assiut.
In May, a court banned members of the NDP, which was dissolved and its headquarters burnt during the 2011 uprising, from running in parliamentary, presidential and local council elections.
The court said the party’s return to political life would pose a threat and anger Egyptians.
But the law will make little difference, said Mohamed Fahmy Saleh, a former NDP member who now belongs to the little-known People’s Republican Party.
“Will affiliation to the NDP stop us engaging in politics in the future? Not at all. Some former NDP members are honourable people who gave Egypt a lot and history will prove this. But this is the nature of revolutions, when a new group comes, it disqualifies the former group.”
Some former NDP members never left politics and have been active in various parties over the past three years, Saleh added.
He said his own party was preparing for parliamentary and local council elections.
Sisi has said nobody will be excluded from politics unless they have a tainted record.
But during a meeting in April with representatives of the National Council for Women, he said there would be “no return” of old regime figures.
“We cannot blame him [for saying that],” Saleh said, “because he is still a candidate and he will do what he thinks will bring him votes.
“(Sisi) will not bring back or reinstate anyone, it will be the people’s choice,” Saleh added.
Yasser Mansour, member of Sabahi’s campaign, also believes the NDP members were never out of the picture.
“They were just waiting for an opportunity to return,” he said.
Political parties are weak
For decades, the Mubarak regime maintained a tight grip on political life, and Islamists, operating underground, were the only organised opposition.
The 2011 uprising allowed the emergence of new political parties, but they remain weak.
“Parties here are either new or just a shell,” Abou Hemeid said. “The south is marginalised politically, like in many other fields.”
The Constitution party is targeting local council elections, he added, because “it’s hard win a parliamentary vote here.”
He said they were participating in a 'No to Marginalising the South' campaign to call for a law obliging the state to implement development projects in Upper Egypt and other underdeveloped regions.
“It’s hard to fill this gap, while parties are still weak. They do not have enough funds,” said Mohamed Badr, a member of the leftist Bread and Freedom group.
While young people could influence the political equation in Cairo, where some are anti-military and anti-Islamist, young people in the south have different priorities.
“The fear of joining an organisation or a party is strong, even if they support its ideology,” Badr said.
“The location for political work here is the university, but it was a closed arena until recently. When it was opened, Islamists controlled it. Many of the professors are Brotherhood members.”
“People are wary of politics. They are simple and poor and all they want is food and security,” Mansour added.
Yasser Mansour, an organizer in Hamdeen Sabahi’s campaign in Assiut (Photo: Mariam Rizk)