CAIRO — A mechanic hammered a fender and boys wandered amid tin and rust as Adham Bishr, his opinions flaring on an agitated afternoon along the Nile, said Egypt’s next president should give him a job, not tell him how to worship God.
Men gathered around Bishr in a scrap of shade, arguing over inflation and politics before disappearing into the grit and anger of a neighborhood at Cairo’s edge. The men, mostly unemployed drivers, mill hands and laborers, want work; their sons, college students with dim prospects, wonder whether the future will bring enough money to take a wife.
“I don’t care about how much Islam is in the government,” said Bishr, laid off years ago from a sugar factory. Before that, during decades when Egypt paid unlivable wages, he built roads in Iraq and welded metal in Saudi Arabia. “I want a president who will rebuild our country. We need to rise again to greatness.”
Egypt is hobbled by economic turmoil, poor healthcare, failing social programs and lack of security. The top candidates in the presidential election that begins Wednesday have addressed these concerns, but the issues have often been eclipsed by passion over how deeply Islam should permeate a new constitution and government.
The election will set the trajectory and tenor of an untested political Islam emerging from more than a year of Arab uprisings. It’s a struggle between ultraconservatives and liberals over whether Egypt should lean toward the fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia or the moderate inclinations of Turkey. The discourse is driven by influential scholars and clerics who invoke piety as a political barometer.
Most Egyptians agree that Islam should guide national policy. But men like Bishr — among the more than 40% of Egyptians who live on less than $2 a day — fear that the elite’s preoccupation with religion and talk of reviving centuries-old caliphates are diversions from the country’s entrenched problems. Such sentiment is shared miles away in well-to-do cafes frequented by the young professionals.
“We need to get the economy on its feet,” said Shady Ghoneim, an electronics importer who supports leading secular candidate Amr Moussa. “Foreign investors won’t come back unless they can trust a moderate president.”
The landmark vote promises to end an era of autocratic rule that began in 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser led a military coup that freed Egypt from colonial rule. Since then, the nation has known only military men as its presidents, including Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in last year’s revolt. The question is whether the Arab world’s most populous state is prepared to deliver an Islamist to the palace.
The choices Egyptians face among the top candidates are clear and symbolize the contentiousness over how to move beyond Mubarak’s legacy.
Moussa, a former foreign minister, promises to offer a secular balance against a parliament controlled by Islamists. He is challenged by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a liberal Islamist straining to appease both moderate and ultraconservative sensibilities, and Muslim Brotherhood hopeful Mohamed Morsi, who has broken the group’s facade of tolerance by veering toward hard-line clerics who command millions of votes.
Morsi’s place of third or fourth in the polls indicates that respondents, about 40% of whom say they are undecided, are suspicious of the Brotherhood and seek a candidate less driven by religious dogma than enshrining a civil state. That’s true for Bishr and the men of the Tora neighborhood, which echoes with tales of prosperity denied.
“I don’t want to become an unemployment statistic,” said Yasser Hamed, a third-year business student at nearby Helwan University. “I hope to be an accountant at a bank or a big company, but right now I sell cement with my father.”
Bishr took part in last year’s uprising in Tahrir Square. Most of his friends did not, and Tora, like many working-class and poor neighborhoods, watched from the outskirts as revolutionaries rallied and history unfolded. Fathers and mothers here hustle for handyman jobs and subsidized bread; they want Egypt kept out of wars and enough household money to fix broken shutters and sagging walls.
“The poor should be the first priority,” said one man. “Egyptians are merciful,” said another. “We already have Islam in our hearts.”
Bishr listened, sharing cigarettes and watching faces. He’s had no work for too long a stretch; a hole in his pants was sewn with mismatching thread and unfilled hours of a long afternoon awaited him. A man in a too big suit carrying a laptop bag hurried past. Moments later, Nabil Mohamed, a truck driver with occasional work, took a seat next to Bishr in the shrinking shade.
“We need a tough president to bring order and get us back to life,” said Mohamed, sweat on his neck, a ring of keys in his hand. “Egyptians are protesting too much. We’re not listening to one another and if we don’t stop we’ll collapse.”
The neighborhood had fewer people when Mohamed was a boy. Houses were only a story high and the highway along the Nile was not so wide. But fishermen and farmers came to Cairo for better lives. Mosques were built, the neighborhood grew, and it never mattered who the presidents or local preachers were because none of them lifted Mohamed’s life beyond anything but a struggle.
Two of his sons went to college; two did not. None have jobs.
“This election should be about allowing my sons to be creative so they can show what they’re capable of,” he said.
“Too many politicians are trying to hide behind the curtain on Islam. Religion is between God and each individual. It’s not the domain of politics. These politicians are harming Islam more than anything else.”
Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.