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Muslim Brotherhood sells cheap food ahead of holiday and Egypt parliament vote

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This weekend’s Islamic holiday, which centers on sacrifice and feeding the poor, offers the Muslim Brotherhood a golden opportunity.

For the first time, Egypt’s Islamist powerhouse is able to campaign openly under a new party banner, and it is using its long-standing charity networks to gain an edge over more liberal and secular candidates ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in two weeks.

Across the country, the movement’s political and charitable machine is selling discounted meat and vegetables to families who otherwise couldn’t afford the traditional rituals for Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice.

Critics call it vote buying, but the Brotherhood says social services are its historic conduit to the people.

In a poor district of eastern Cairo on Friday, families crowded outside the neighborhood mosque as volunteers for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party yelled out prices on discounted potatoes, lemons, green beans and other vegetables. Sewage ran through potholed streets, and garbage was piled high. Many families in the neighborhood share one-room dwellings that serve as their kitchen, bedroom and living room.

Nawal Sleem, 40, pushed through the crowd to order vegetables with her plaid shopping bag under one arm. Potatoes were about half-price compared with the regular market she frequents. Meat had been on sale, but it wasn’t available Friday.

Sleem’s husband makes just $50 a month to support her and her two sons, who can’t find jobs as Egypt’s economy limps along. Eid al-Adha usually includes the sacrifice of a sheep, but the family would have to settle for vegetables.

Unemployment has risen since the winter protests that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak and empowered the nation’s military. Food prices have doubled, she said, weeping.

Sleem said she doesn’t exactly understand what this parliament will do. Many other Egyptians seem not to, either, and it is unclear how much power the new parliament will wield.

Mubarak had banned the Muslim Brotherhood but allowed it to field candidates as independents. Now, members are eagerly campaigning for the new party.

Because of the discounted produce, Sleem said she will likely vote for the party.

“They seem good,” she said of the Brotherhood. “They help with expensive things.”

Maha Abdel Salem, 30, questioned the Brotherhood’s motives as she also left the stall with only vegetables.

She walked back to her haphazardly built apartment, where her son slept on the bed she shares with her four children and husband. Flies buzzed around her sleeping child’s face. When it rains, the roof leaks.

“What is a kilo of vegetables going to do for me when I live like this?” she asked, pointing out that it was the first time she had seen the discounted market in her neighborhood. “We live with sewage in broken-down houses. We’ll vote for someone who can solve this.”

The Brotherhood’s party has been trying to address the issues of the poor, selling lower-priced notebooks, pens and other stationery before the school year started, for example. It has set up mobile health clinics in areas without hospitals and deployed tens of thousands of volunteers to mobilize their programs.

Their campaign posters read “Together we’ll fight inflation” and “Get to know us, join us.”

In Gamaliyah, another neighborhood of eastern Cairo, residents are discussing the prospects of the local Freedom and Justice candidate, Mohsen Kamel.

“I will give them my vote,” said Khamees Hanfi, 42, a mechanic. “If there is anything in their hands to help, they will do it.”

At the party headquarters, Nashat Aouf, 37, said the movement had sold about 4,000 pounds of meat to people in the neighborhood for the holidays.

“People have faith in us. We communicate with them through services. That is the party’s concern,” Aouf said.

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Company