Election campaign banners on a Cairo street. The three-stage parliamentary elections, the first since Hosni Mubarak was unseated in February, begin on November 28. Image Credit: EPA

Cairo: With Egypt's parliamentary elections less than three weeks away, thousands of contenders are intensifying their campaigns. They are capitalising on the four-day Eid Al Adha break that ends today to woo voters.

On the eve of the festival, Egyptians were inundated with short text messages from parliament hopefuls, wishing them a happy Eid.

Around this predominantly Muslim country, more than 11,000 candidates running for the November elections are keen on appearing in mosques to shake hands with worshippers and present gifts to children, including festive balloons and toys.

Despite a ban by the Egyptian authorities on using places of worship in campaigns, several Islamist groups used the Eid prayer congregations and sermons on Sunday to urge worshippers to "elect candidates who know well God's religion and are careful to implement Sharia".

"The enforcement of God's law is coming," said Sobhi Saleh, an Islamist contender in a sermon in the coastal city of Alexandria. "The Tunisians did this and so can the Egyptians," he added, referring to the big win made by Tunisia's Islamists in the October vote.

Emerging from an official ban and oppression of almost six decades, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists (a group of ultraconservative Muslims) are vying in the three-round elections that begin on November 28. The elections are the first since a popular revolt unseated long-standing president Hosni Mubarak.

Sacrificial meat

In an apparent bid to win over voters in the working class areas, Islamist contenders have set up kiosks to sell meat at economical prices. Candidates in the southern Egyptian province of Assiut distributed sacrificial meat for free with their photos pasted on the beef bags, according to the semi-official newspaper Al Ahram.

In Beni Sueif, another province in southern Egypt, parliament hopefuls reportedly offered cash gifts to children.

Other contenders, mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, arranged raffle draws in which winners received valuable prizes including sheep.

Around 40 per cent of Egypt's 80 million population is believed to be living below the poverty line.

Unable to cope with the lavish spending at campaigning mainly from Islamists and suspected loyalists of Mubarak, liberal and revolutionary contenders use seminars and tours in their constituencies to muster votes.

"I do not believe that pasting posters on walls or distributing free meat is an effective tool in impressing voters in the post-revolutionary era," said Huda Abdul Rahman, a young candidate in northern Cairo.

Half-baked legislation

"People want a strong parliament that will strictly monitor the performance of the government and prevent enacting of half-baked legislation," she told Gulf News.

Huda, supported by several coalitions created after the anti-Mubarak revolt, is depending on face-to-face interaction to introduce her electoral programme to voters.

Amr Hamzawi, a well-known liberal standing for parliament for the first time, was keen on the first day of the Muslim festival on touring his electoral district in the eastern Cairo quarter of Heliopolis. "There is no time for a break on the Eid," he said as he emerged from a mosque in the area.

Contenders from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists were locked in a fierce rivalry for domination of prayer areas in public squares where Eid prayers were offered on the first day of the festival, according to observers. As they were delivering the traditional sermons, their supporters were busy distributing publicity leaflets to worshippers.

Slogan chanting

Campaigns are due to end on November 26, two days before the vote.

"The candidates are obviously exploiting the religious sentiments of the Egyptians to win them over," said Fat'hi Mansour, a professor of political sociology.

"They are also illegally using mosques in their campaigns. This is dangerous and should be stopped," he told this newspaper.

According to him, sermons delivered by Islamist contenders or their supporters inside mosques threaten to divide Egypt into religious and non-religious people.

"This was clear in the slogans chanted inside mosques against liberals and secularists," said Mansour.

"There is also an apparent manipulation of people's needs in the poor areas in campaigning. Addressing religious feelings instead of promoting religious tolerance poses a threat to Egypt."