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In Egypt’s Islamist heartland, voters voice doubts about Muslim Brotherhood

Many voters on Thursday said they were steering clear of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, citing disillusionment with the party’s performance in parliament.

In 1992, Imbaba was a hotbed of Islamic militancy. Militants effectively took control of the Cairo neighborhood and pronounced it an Islamic emirate. The  military had to send thousands of troops in to bring the area back under control.

Today, the military is in Imbaba for another reason—overseeing voting for Egypt’s first president since the uprising that pushed Hosni Mubarak from power. The two-day election will determine whether an Islamist will be the next president of Egypt. One possibility is Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of Egypt’s most organized political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

Imbaba, a chaotic and mostly poor area, is home to 500,000 registered voters and would seem an ideal place  for the Muslim Brotherhood to win votes. In December parliamentary elections, about 70 percent of the district that includes Imbaba voted for Islamist parties – either the FJP or the ultraconservative Nour Party.

But many voters on Thursday said they were steering clear of the Brotherhood’s candidate, citing disillusionment with the party’s performance in parliament, or an aversion to the organization’s attempt to dominate the legislative and executive branches of government. Many said they would cast their votes for a leftist or the candidate most closely associated with Mubarak’s regime. Even if Mr. Morsi carries the area’s votes, the discontent is a sign of the risk the Brotherhood has taken in reaching for so much, so soon.

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“Six months ago, the people here loved them,” said Tarek Abdel Meguid, referring to the Brotherhood, and the approximate moment when the FJP won nearly 50 percent of parliamentary seats. “But they exposed themselves in Parliament. So now people don’t trust them here.”

Mr. Abdel Meguid said the FJP had been ineffective in parliament, not living up to its promises or making a difference in people’s lives. He will vote for former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh instead. As he spoke, Abdel Meguid stood in front of a school on a narrow dirt side street, waiting for his mother to vote inside. Like many roads in Imbaba, this one is not paved, and is hardly wide enough for a car to pass. Three-wheeled vehicles called tok-toks honked as they drove by, kicking up dust. Above them, laundry fluttered from balconies of brick buildings built so close together not even a tok-tok could pass between them.

“I don’t want to put all the eggs in one basket,” he said.

After the military retook Imbaba from the militants in the 1990s, the government promised to spend hundreds of millions to develop the area. But Imbaba doesn’t look like the kind of place that has ever seen any attention or care from the central government. One of the main complaints of residents is the garbage. It is piled, stinking and rotting, on the streets, and residents say it is rarely removed. Herds of goats sometimes feed on it. Today, a woman and her daughter pick through it, looking for recyclables.

The Brotherhood’s political party has done well in places like Imbaba because the organization has long offered welfare services to the poor, giving free or low-cost medical care, distributing food, and helping Egyptians who struggle to make ends meet. About 40 percent of Egypt’s 82 million citizens live on less than $2 a day.

Big needs

Imbaba resident Hani Ahmed, who works at a newspaper printing press, said there are many needs in the neighborhood. “Transportation is difficult. The garbage – we’re being charged for cleanup but there’s still garbage in the street.”

As he stood outside a polling station with his young daughter and his wife, who wore the face veil called the niqab, he said he had voted for Hamdeen Sabbahi, because he was the candidate most likely to address such issues. Mr. Sabbahi ran on a populist platform, promising to improve the lives of Egypt’s poor and bring social justice to Egypt. “I love the way he thinks. The thing he’s most concerned with is the lower-income people,” said Mr. Ahmed.

At the same polling station, a gregarious woman who gave her name as Nawal showed off her ink-dipped finger, indicating she had voted. She chose Sabbahi as well, she said, a silver tooth gleaming as she smiled. “I voted for the Brotherhood in parliamentary elections. We thought that they would improve things,” she said. “We’re all Muslims, and we thought we’d stand hand in hand with them. But nothing happened.”

She ticked off all the problems residents of Imbaba faced – unemployment, bad education, trouble finding housing, problems with transportation. With only a few months in parliament, and without the power to dissolve the military-appointed cabinet and form a new one, the FJP has had little chance to address such deep-rooted problems.

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Yet some voters are cutting the organization little slack, perhaps because its crushing victory and lofty promises raised expectations. Back in the fall, while campaigning in the same part of Imbaba for a parliamentary seat he eventually won, an FJP candidate promised residents he would “make their dreams come true.”

Badr Ishaq, a bicycle repairman who watched voters exit a polling station as he smoked a water pipe in the shade, said his parliamentary vote for the Brotherhood was in vain. This time, he voted for Ahmed Shafiq. Mr. Shafiq is a former head of the Air Force who served as Mubarak’s last prime minister, appointed after the uprising had begun.

Several Imbaba residents said they would vote for Shafiq because they thought he could bring stability and security back to Egypt, which has been wracked with unrest, violence, and crime since the uprising. “The most important thing is that he has a military background, which makes him capable to manage the country during this period,” said Adel Shehata, a teacher who voted for Shafiq. “Security is the No. 1 concern. And whatever he promises, he will do.”

To be sure, many Imbaba residents support Morsi, like Hana Khalaf. As tok-toks dropped people off at a polling station, she said she voted for Morsi because he’s from the Brotherhood. “We will see if they can fix the country and make things better for us,” she said.