REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- A campaign led by ultraconservative Islamist presidential candidate Hazem Salah abu Ismail has called on Egyptians to raise money on their own so their country will not be dependent on $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid.
Abu Ismail's arithmetic rings with folksy nationalism: He estimates that $1.3 billion is the equivalent of about 6 billion Egyptian pounds. If each of Egypt's 84 million people donated 72 pounds (about $12) a year there would be no need for U.S. aid, he noted. He slogan is: "Buy your dignity with only 72 pounds."
The U.S. aid issue has been heavily debated in Egypt in recent weeks, especially after charges of illegal funding were brought against 16 Americans working for U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations that promote democracy.
Diplomatic tension over the case were further heightened when testimony given in October by Cabinet Minister Fayza Aboul Naga was made public this week. She said the U.S. was attempting to create chaos in Egypt after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in an effort to bolster "American and Israeli interests," according to state media.
Abu Ismail, a member of the Salafis, or ultraconservative Islamists, has long objected to U.S. money, claiming that it detracts from Egypt's sovereignty and serves an American agenda that isn’t in the best interest of Egyptians.
"The U.S. aid is flawed by two things. First is that it serves America's interests and not Egypt's needs, secondly is that Egypt is never given the choice of how to spend the aid. Plans on using such aid are always imposed by the U.S. administration," he said in a conference in December.
The hard-line Islamist candidate is known for his opposition to Western ideas and anything that contradicts sharia, or Islamic law. He believes that U.S. aid degrades Islamic culture in favor of Western beliefs.
"The U.S. wants to change the values of Egyptians and make them love things like homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and they allocate large sums of their aid to the media to do this, for example," he said.
If elected president, Abu Ismail intends to implement sharia law banning activities such as selling alcohol, wearing bikinis on public beaches and gambling. He also called for an end to the peace treaty with Israel and wants to establish better ties with Iran.
Whether he can get Egyptians to donate $12 is another matter, especially when nearly 45% of his countrymen live on $2 a day or less.
-- Amro Hassan
Photo: Egyptian presidential candidate Hazem Salah abu Ismail, center, is guarded by supporters as he enters Tahrir Square in Cairo during a protest against the ruling military council on Oct. 28, 2011. Credit: Amr Nabil / Associated Pre