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Muslim Brotherhood capitalizes on Egypt vote

CAIRO - First-time voter Hassan Abdel-Hamid had no idea who to vote for in Egypt's first parliamentary elections since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, so he followed the guidance of the friendly activist from the Muslim Brotherhood who handed him a flyer outside the polling station.

The fundamentalist Brotherhood is emerging as the biggest winner in partial results from the first voting this week in Egypt's landmark election, in which voters turned out in unexpected droves.

That strength is not necessarily testimony to widespread Egyptian support for its Islamist ideology. More crucial were two other major factors: the Brotherhood's history of helping the poor and a highly disciplined organization of activists, who on the two days of voting on Monday and Tuesday seemed to be everywhere.

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Outside polling stations around the country, Brotherhood activists were set up with laptop computers in booths, helping voters find their district and voter numbers — which they wrote on cards advertising the party's candidates. Elsewhere, they posted activists outside to wave banners, pass out flyers or simply chat up voters waiting in line.

And in a marked change from previous elections, when Brotherhood members running as independents touted their Islamic credentials, this time their campaign focused on promises to improve services, to appeal to poor voters.

"Do you think any of these guys prays when it's not a holiday?" said Yasser Dawahi, pointing to four friends hanging out in his auto garage in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Zawiya al-Hamra before the vote. All said they'd vote for the Brotherhood.

"It's all about services, clean streets, jobs and hospitals. That's what's important," he said.

For decades, the Mubarak regime suppressed the Brotherhood, which was banned but still established a vast network of activists and charities offering free food and medical services. It transformed this into a potent campaign machine, holding rallies and wallpapering neighborhoods with banners for its Freedom and Justice Party. After voting closed in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria on Tuesday night, Brothers even lined up to protect the road while ballot boxes were moved to the counting center.

During the voting, many parties violated a legal ban on campaigning during elections, but the Brotherhood's operation was by far the slickest and most widespread. The campaigning at the polls is particularly effective because so many parties are new and most Egyptians know almost nothing about them.

Abdel-Hamid, the first time voter, said he received the flyer telling him how to vote from "the guys with the computer."

They sat across the street in front of a huge Freedom and Justice Party banner, punching voters' ID numbers into their computer to get their voter numbers and make sure they were in the right place.

One of them, 25-year-old Essam Ahmed, acknowledged he was a party activist, but denied the group was campaigning. "Here I'm just a volunteer for all citizens," he said.

Shortly after an Associated Press reporters arrived, the men took down the party banner and wrote voter information on plain white paper instead of party brochures.

The election is likely to be the best indicator of Egyptians' political sentiments after decades of elections under Mubarak that were so rigged that few people even bothered to vote. The parliament it seats will play a role in determining if Egypt's new government remains secular or moves in a profoundly Islamist direction.

The Obama administration on Wednesday hailed the vote as Egypt's freest and fairest ever. This week's voting took place in nine of Egypt's 27 provinces, including the capital Cairo. In subsequent rounds, other provinces will take their turn in a process that will last till March.

Partial results reported by judges overseeing the count showed the Brotherhood leading, though the extent of their win was not clear. The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party is likely to win a strong plurality — and some of its leaders Wednesday claimed it captured half the first round vote.

Mustafa Mohammed Khalifa, a 28-year-old voter in the village of Elwan in central Egypt, said little distinguished the parties in the eyes of his poor farming community, where most people live on government-subsidized bread and suffer from poor sanitation, roads, schools and hospitals. But all knew the Brotherhood's reputation for providing charity.

"The Muslim Brotherhood never helped here, but at least we know them," he said. "They aren't extreme liberals or extreme conservatives."

Many criticized the Brotherhood's tactics, though few deny they gave them an edge at the polls.

"They outspent, outworked and politically outclassed the other political parties by a huge factor," said Elijah Zarwan, a political analyst who specializes in Egypt.

The election commission has said it will punish groups that violate the election law. Foreign observers say it is too early to speak of systematic violations, though some add that the rules banning campaigning lack specificity. The U.S. National Democratic Institute, which ran an observer team, praised the vote in general in a statement Wednesday but advised authorities to set a 30-yard campaign-free zone around polling sites.

"They're not playing it fair," said Carmen George, a Coptic Christian who pointed to Brotherhood activists outside her polling station in the Cairo neighborhood of Nasr City.

"It's not guiding (voters). It's manipulating them," she said.

The Brotherhood operation in the neighborhood showed the blurriness of the line between campaigning and "assisting voters." Its activists sat behind a sign reading "Information" while female volunteers chatted up voters near the entrance.

None wore party logos, leading some voters to think they were from the state election commission.

While most voters merely needed help getting their numbers, one volunteer told an undecided voter to choose the scale, the soccer goal and the crocodile — the campaign symbols of the party and its two local candidates. The symbols, on campaign literature and the ballot, are to help illiterate people recognize their choices.

Nearby, Brotherhood volunteer Siham Sobhi wore a badge reading "information committee."

"I ask people who they want to vote for and if they say they don't know, I tell them I am with Freedom and Justice," she said. "I don't tell them how to vote, but I describe my position."

She denied this constitutes campaigning.

A moment later, 70-year-old Sayida Mohammed walked from the volunteer's table to the polling station.

"I want someone to fix the country because the people who are full don't feel for people who are hungry," she said.

She was unclear which party she supported but knew which symbols to pick: The scale, the soccer goal and the crocodile.

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