World Bulletin / News Desk
How much is a vote worth? In Egypt's Sadat City - a sprawling, industrial centre filled with the young and unemployed - it costs the same as it did under Hosni Mubarak: blankets, sacks of fertiliser and affordable healthcare.
Four years after Egypt's 2011 popular uprising that toppled Mubarak and raised hopes for an end to patronage politics, many desperate citizens will cast their vote in next month's parliamentary poll in accordance with the same old system.
They say they have little choice. Unemployment is running at 13 percent and two-fifths of the population live on or around the poverty line, with living conditions worsening since Mubarak's overthrow.
A crackdown by the military-backed government on liberals has opened the field for businessmen who supported Mubarak during his 30 year rule.
Dozens are being granted acquittals after graft charges are thrown out. Once freed some are reviving the past: offering handouts to secure votes.
The practice, while not illegal, is raising concerns among civil and rights groups.
One example is Ahmed Ezz, a potential candidate in the race for the one seat in Sadat City, northwest of Cairo.
He is seen by many Egyptians as one of the most powerful symbols of crony capitalism in Mubarak's Egypt and served in two previous parliaments.
Ezz, who declined to be interviewed, has publicly denied allegations that he has tarnished Egyptian politics or engaged in corruption.
He is appealing a decision by a court to bar him from running on the grounds he has not submitted all the required election documents. On Tuesday night, he appeared on a television talkshow and defended his right to contest polls.
The steel tycoon who was a prominent member of the now dissolved National Democratic Party, became rich during Mubarak's rule. He spent the aftermath of the 2011 revolt in jail convicted of corruption charges. Ezz was freed in August but still faces trials on graft charges.
The high election committee has rejected his application to contest the election in March and April, but he is appealing the decision and his wife is running as well.
In Sadat City where he owns many factories, residents say they support his return to office because the government is failing them.
"I strongly support him... he is providing us with services," said Sherif Abdel-Hameed, a merchant in a crowded produce market. "As long as the state is marginalising me, he will be more important for me than the public interest."
People like Abdelhameed say their villages suffer from unemployment and poor healthcare, electricity shortages and poor sanitation.
Vendors and shoppers in the market told Reuters they had received gifts such as blankets and fertilizer from Ezz's charity.
At a private hospital nearby, the foundation is subsidising health care, picking up half the bill for patients.
More than 1,100 patients have so far benefited, Amir Saad, a hospital administrator at Harmel Memorial Hospital, said. But those who benefit must live in Ezz's electoral district and be eligible to vote.
"I will vote for Ezz. He has been providing us with services for many years," said Sabri El-Garhi, whose daughter was being treated for kidney gallstones at half the cost.
Hany Shafiq, the head of the hospital, insisted that medical care trumped politics in desperate circumstances.
"If the devil came to me saying he wanted to help patients, I would deal with him."
Sherif Afifi, a ceramics factory owner and contender for the same seat, presents himself as an alternative to traditional politics. He too is a businessman with no political track record.
"During his two terms, Ezz provided temporary and individual services, but there was no development on the ground," Afifi told Reuters in his campaign headquarters in a villa that stood out amid the dreary landscape of apartment blocks in the town.
Afifi has pledged to focus on infrastructure and sustainable development but he faces accusations from residents of utilising Ezz's methods.
He does not deny donating ceramics to support the building of places of worship and schools, but says he's been doing this for years out of a sense of community, long before he considered running for office.
"The vast majority of the contenders are depending on the same measures as the former NDP ... the problem is in the election system which makes services and money the most effective indicators in the election process," said Waheed Abdelmajeed, a political science professor.
Back in the market, a young woman selling strawberries insults a crowd of men praising Ezz.
"There was a revolution and people died and now he's back, to do what?" said Heba, referring to hundreds of people who were killed in protests or violence during the 18-day uprising against Mubarak.
"Ezz does nothing except for the inner circle around him," said Ali Abbas, a 26-year-old unemployed university graduate.
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