Economy weighs on Egyptians’ minds as they vote for a new parliament.

Julia Simon Nov 28, 2011

Economy weighs on Egyptians’ minds as they vote for a new parliament.

Julia Simon Nov 28, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: In Egypt, this is election day. A real election for the first time in decades. Lines were long — people waited hours to cast their ballots.

It’s been a tense couple of weeks with the violence in Tahrir Square over when the military will hand over power to a civilian goverment. But out in the streets of Cairo today, that wasn’t top of mind with a lot of voters.

Julia Simon reports, it was the economy.

Julia Simon: It’s early morning in Cairo’s working class Shubra neighborhood. Thirty-one-year-old housewife Fatma Ali approaches the end of a long line at an elementary school to cast her vote. She says her husband, a plumber, has been out of work for months, and she worries about the future for her two children.

Fatma Ali: Life is hard here and there are a lot of people who can’t afford to eat.

Ali and her family are among the 40 percent of all Egyptians who live on less than $2 a day. And there’s only one group she’d consider voting for — the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

Ali: They help us with schools and hospitals — everything we need. They’ll make Egypt a better place.

The Freedom and Justice Party is expected to win as much as a third of all seats in Parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood is one of the largest and most organized groups in Egypt. And they appeal to poor voters like Fatma Ali through their extensive charitable programs.

Abdel Hafez Assawy wrote the economic platform for the Freedom and Justice party. He says the group’s main aim is to narrow the gap between rich and poor. In addition to raising the minimum wage he says the party will…

Abdel Hafez Assawy: Balance the budget, especially in education and health, improve the investment environment, fight corruption and create jobs.

The Freedom and Justice Party has a broad following. Its ranks are full of doctors, lawyers, and educated professionals. Mohammad El Horishi is a 20-year-old business student. His dad, a physician, helped run a Freedom and Justice campaign in Cairo.

Mohammad El Horishi: What is economics all about? It’s about efficiency. The Muslim brothers have the capability, have the potential to achieve.

But the Brotherhood worries other voters who fear the group has an Islamic agenda. And for some it’s not clear whether the Freedom and Justice Party will make the economy a priority. Hazem Hosny teaches political science at Cairo University. He says the Muslim Brotherhood knows its charity work is key to its appeal. In many ways, Hosny says, it’s better for the group to keep Egypt poor.

Hazem Hosny: Because when Egyptians are poor they need someone to give them subsidies, some help. And through these subsidies they control these elections. They gain elections through these poor people. Keep Egyptians in a needy state.

But the Freedom and Justice party’s Assawy says his group is committed to training and job development.

Assawy: No, we’re not just giving a man a fish, we’re teaching him to fish.

But that message hasn’t convinced butcher Abdel Fatah in the Nawah village north of Cairo. He sharpens his knife and weighs a piece of lamb for a customer.

Fatah says he’ll go to the polls when his district votes in January. But he won’t vote for the Freedom and Justice Party. As part of charity efforts last month, the Muslim Brotherhood sold lamb in his village. But they sold it at cheaper prices than Fatah could, and he lost business.

In Cairo, I’m Julia Simon for Marketplace.

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