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WAR OF SYMBOLISM: The crescent moon becomes a subject of political debate

Posted by vmsalama on August 4, 2005

By Vivian Salama
Daily Star Staff
CAIRO:  Which of the following symbols is more appealing to you?  The crescent moon, the very symbol adorning mosques across the Arab world, which communicates the message of a greater glory to one who is honored by sovereignty; a camel, associated with Sufism, and qualities such as patience, temperance and perseverance; the palm tree, symbolizing victory over death; or the donkey, a symbol of stubbornness, and sometimes of patience and gentleness.


            The symbol you identify with the most might, in theory, influence your choice for choosing Egypt’s next president.  As we near the one month mark before Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election, the fight for symbolism, in this case, the crescent moon, is at the heart of a dispute between President Hosni Mubarak and his leading contender, El Ghad (Tomorrow) party leader, Ayman Nour. 
            One week ago, as hopeful candidates submitted their nomination papers to the Electoral Commission for review, they were asked to pick a symbol which they feel best exemplifies their message.  The candidates and their coinciding symbol would be announced when the commission finalizes the list for this year’s candidates.  The symbol would then appear alongside the candidates name on the ballot come September 7, Election Day. 
In this case, the symbols range from the crescent (hilal, in Arabic) which, always the number one symbol on the ballot, has always gone to President Mubarak; a camel, a palm tree, a pyramid, to name a few.  There have been in the past several, more extreme, symbols such as a dagger or a pistol.  The donkey, which at one time was offered, was removed as no one desired to associate themselves with the image. 
            When the commission office opened for submissions last Friday, Ayman Nour arrived bright and early, submitting his papers and choosing for himself the crescent moon.  Hours later, the President’s lawyer, Mohammed Dakruri, registered Mubarak and claimed the crescent for the National Democratic Party (NDP). 
            “The one who gets the hilal is always the first on the ballot,” says Gamila Ismail, El Ghad Party spokesperson, also Nour’s wife.  “On the first day, we went early to be number one.  We wanted the hilal, so we went early but later on we found out President Mubarak was the first one to nominate himself and he got the hilal.”
            According to Ismail, representatives from El Ghad party were on site in front of the Electoral Commission building at 4am, standing guard should obstacles prevent Nour from arriving there himself.  She says that at no point did they see Mubarak’s lawyer or anyone from the NDP present papers to nominate the President for reelection.  However, legal sources tell the Daily Star Egypt that Nour’s papers were incomplete at the time Dakruri submitted nomination papers for Mubarak, and so the president has the right to the crescent.  A final decision has yet to be made on who will claim the crescent for their campaign symbol.    
            Campaign symbols serve a great purpose in Egypt as they cater to the appeal of the illiterate.  According to the United States Department of State, 43 percent of Egyptians cannot read or write.  Therefore, name-symbol association is the easiest way to win participation from the literate and illiterate. 
            “To enable illiterates to vote, they give candidates a symbol so they can tell people vote for the donkey, as it once was, or vote for the hilal,” explains Saad El Din Ibrahim, professor of politics at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and a former presidential hopeful.  “That is the origin of symbols – to combat illiteracy as being an impediment for people to read the names of candidates.”
             The crescent, however, represents far more than a political logo to the literate and illiterate alike.  It is one of the most recognizable symbols representing Islamic ideology worldwide, dating back to the early days of the Ottoman Empire.  The hilal therefore provides a huge advantage to the candidate who will win rights over it, as it hits an emotional chord far removed from any political agenda. 
            “The campaign symbol should be a symbol, nothing more,” explains Khaled Galal, a Branding expert.  “[The crescent] is more than a symbol.  That’s why they are fighting for it.  It is a symbol with equity of more than 700 years.  It is deeply emotional and Egyptians are deeply superstitious.” 
            “The problem is not the symbol, the problem is what this incident is an indication for,” explains Ismail.  “This is an indication of what will happen the day of the election.”
            As far as politics goes, experts agree, the crescent represents votes.  For those Egyptians who do not follow the day to day wrangling of political parties, the crescent is the easiest, safest, most reliable symbol they can turn to, as it represents a power far greater than any politician.  Take Saudi Arabia as an example.  This week, as the nation paid tribune to its late King Fahd Abdel Aziz, the Saudi flag was not flown at half-mast since inscribed on the green flag is an Islamic testament of faith.  Lowering it would therefore be blasphemous.    
            “The crescent is a symbol of Islam in general,” says Ibrahim.  “It’s like a cross in recent civilization.  So it ended up with a fight over the hilal but also over whose name should appear in the ballot first.” 
            Symbols such as the camel or the palm tree, experts say, cannot compete against the crescent, since the less fortunate are likely not to vote against someone whose name is associated with a symbol of God.  Experts therefore agree that the candidate who wins the right to the crescent will essentially win over the hearts and minds of millions of voters.     
            “This is beyond a symbol,” says Galal.  “They are fighting for using a weak spot in the hearts of Egyptian people.  It is a fight for opportunity.”
            Is one solution omitting the crescent – as a campaign symbol – all together?  Since the fall of the monarchy in 1952, Egypt has observed secular rule.  Candidates wishing to run under a platform of parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood have been banned as the government has looked to promote ideologies independent of Islam.  The Brotherhood themselves have opted to stop raising the Quran at protests as they seek to communicate their political agenda exclusively.  With that, the fight over the crescent represents a contradiction as to the role religion plays in mainstream politics.   
            “The crescent is a religious symbol and nobody should own it,” suggests Galal.  “This is a three week symbol war with no depth and no agenda.  Everything related to this will be forgotten afterwards because it is in no way related to a political agenda or a struggle by the Egyptian people.”

2 Responses to “WAR OF SYMBOLISM: The crescent moon becomes a subject of political debate”

  1. Heath said

    Hello there! This is my first comment here so
    I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I really enjoy reading your posts.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that go over
    the same topics? Appreciate it!

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