Religion is but one reason Muslim Brotherhood making big gains in Egypt's elections

Batn Hereed, Egypt - Wafdeya Mohammed, a poor widow with five children to feed, says she usually can't be bothered with political platforms and slogans.

Nevertheless, on Sunday the 32-year-old widow voted for the only group that has stood by her since her husband died seven years ago: The Muslim Brotherhood, which pays her a monthly stipend, keeps her children in school and provides medical care.

In the three-stage parliamentary election now under way, many Egyptians are voting for the Muslim Brotherhood because they agree with its slogan: "Islam is the solution."

But interviews with people like Wafdeya Mohammed reveal an appeal that goes beyond religion: Some Egyptians, especially in poor areas, believe the Brotherhood tackles the problems of daily life ignored by a government they see as aloof, corrupt and inefficient.

Long banned by secular Egyptian governments, the Muslim Brotherhood has to field its candidates as independents, but all voters know their affiliation.

In results announced so far, it has won 47 seats, more than tripling its presence in the outgoing 454-member parliament and establishing itself as the main opposition force to President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party. Its share of seats is bound to increase further after run-off voting Saturday and a final round Dec. 1.

In Batn Hereed, about 90 miles south of Cairo, filthy water runs in ditches alongside bumpy dirt roads and there are people so poor they barely have furniture. Some villagers say they are voting for the Brotherhood candidate because he calls for paving the roads, creating jobs and irrigating their land. They accuse the government of such neglect that the water is unsafe to drink.

Mohammed, a haggard looking woman in a veil, sleeps on the floor under a roof of reeds and empty cement bags. She says that after her husband died, she was left with a government pension worth just $8 a month, so the Brotherhood took up the slack.

"The brothers were the ones who brought power and water to this house. They've done a lot for me and my children," she said.

"The government should have been the one helping us, but it only helps those who have connections."

The government candidate in Mohammed's village, Youssef Wali, is a former minister of agriculture whose ministry was dogged by corruption allegations.

"We have seen nothing of him, neither good nor bad. We hear about him, but don't really know him," she said.

The ruling party dominates the state but suffers from bureaucracy and power struggles, while the Brotherhood is the only organized political force active on the streets and among voters, said Amr el-Choubaki, an analyst with the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Legal opposition parties are seen as weak and lack popular support.

In Batn Hereed, the Brotherhood's work permeates daily life. It mediates disputes, distributes food and looks after orphans, the sick and the needy, residents say.

Elsewhere in Egypt it is strong in professional unions and on university campuses.

Before the elections, Jeehan Ahmed and a group of friends used their own money to print campaign fliers for the Brotherhood candidate in Batn Hereed and to rent buses to carry voters to the polls.

People in government who couldn't provide work for her four brothers "are busy building palaces for themselves. They want nothing to do with us," she said. "The Brotherhood will put an end to our problems because they live among us and know of our troubles."

The Brotherhood's Islamic credentials ensure they will make good on promises of reform and services should they ever gain power, she insists.

As religious fervor grows in Egypt, government crackdowns enhance the Brotherhood's underdog image and win it sympathy.

"Religion can reform this society. Islam does not just belong to mosques. Islam is a religion for this world," said Mohammed Mouawad, a 20-year-old journalism student and Brotherhood supporter who escorted journalists on election day in Fayoum province where Batn Hereed is located.

He said he had studied the platforms of liberals and leftists and decided their methods would not solve Egypt's problems.

Others fear the Brotherhood is hiding its true colors.

"When they say Islam is the solution, does that mean they're Muslims and we're not?" asked Nasser Abdel Tawwab, a ruling party supporter in Fayoum. "Plus, where does this leave Christians? This is discrimination and can create tensions." About 10 percent of Egyptians are Christian.

"Any religious state will be a totalitarian state that will use violence against its opponents," Salah Eissa, a leftist writer, said on a TV panel discussion.

Brotherhood leaders counter that the government has stoked such fears as an excuse not to allow democratic reforms that could give the Brotherhood a place in politics. They say they want a government in which Islam is the ultimate authority and which guarantees democracy and the rights of all.

Impossible, argued Eissa. "No one has been able to implement this rosy dream."