The smell of freshly baked bread calms the room filled with women in frayed cloaks and worn slippers. Grateful for the assistance, they walk out of a Muslim Brotherhood social service center into the trash-strewn alley, clutching plastic bags packed with flat bread loaves.
For five years, the Jordanian government has clamped down on the Islamist group's electoral ambitions and its charity programs, suspicious it was using good deeds to win political support.
But the global food crisis has carved out new opportunities for the Brotherhood and other hard-line groups across the Muslim world. Increasingly unaffordable prices underscore criticism of autocratic governments and drive more people toward fundamentalist groups. Though the Brotherhood fared poorly last year in municipal elections, it has been steadily gaining ground in recent months, sweeping votes for the leadership of Jordan's professional associations.
"We used to win some and lose some. Now, we win all of them," said Zaki Bani Arshid, leader of the Islamic Action Front, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. "The government which tried to marginalize us politically for years has now given us a big gift."
The increase in food prices has challenged America's goals in the Middle East at a critical juncture, when it is attempting to win support from friendly governments for an Israeli- Palestinian peace initiative and for confronting Iran and Al Qaeda.
Analysts and officials worry that the crisis could result in food riots.
The anger has taken on an increasingly anti-U.S. tone, even among elected officials. Egyptian lawmakers, for example, have accused the United States of causing the crisis by conspiring to keep their country dependent on wheat imports.
"If we look at these main factors behind the increase in world food prices and the specter of famine and political turbulence, we will easily reach the conclusion that [the] Bush administration and the bunch of neoconservatives and their foolish policies in waging external wars . . . are, in practice, behind this deep crisis," said an April column in the pro-government daily newspaper Al Watan in Oman, a staunch U.S. ally.
"America is being held responsible for what is happening," said Arshid, of Jordan's Islamic Action Front. "It's supporting these corrupt regimes."
The frustration is potentially more explosive here than in more democratic parts of the developing world.
"People can tolerate anything except when it comes to food," said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian economist and critic of the government. "The security establishment cannot open a file for the hungry like you can for the political activists. One day you'll wake up and see havoc."
Officials throughout the Middle East have begun importing food, implementing price controls, slashing import duties for foodstuffs and locking in prices for future purchases of wheat and rice. They've also begun preparing local fields for wheat production and making monetary reforms.
Morocco has decided to spend $2 billion to raise public-sector wages. In Egypt, where subsidized bread is synonymous with the people's bond to the state, deadly riots broke out during the 1970s when then-President Anwar Sadat considered slashing the subsidies. President Hosni Mubarak is working to calm an explosive atmosphere marked by a rising inflation rate, labor unrest, strikes and fears that long bread lines may again appear.
Both Jordan and Egypt have raised government salaries and pensions by more than 20%. And Lebanon's Ministry of Social Affairs plans to increase by eightfold the number of people it aids.
Jordanian government officials consider the economic situation their highest priority, a grave, snowballing threat, analysts said. Officials remember the riots that erupted in 1971 when the price of sugar went up and in 1996 when bread prices jumped.
"The government understands the severity of the situation," said Fahd Khitan, a columnist and editor for the independent Amman daily Arab Today.
But awareness has not been enough to forestall the economic repercussions in a country where per-capita annual income is about $5,500 and 60% of workers earn fixed wages as public-sector employees.
Meat and chicken prices have risen 30% since October. The price of a dozen eggs has nearly doubled, to $2.30. And produce has climbed at an even higher rate, with squash soaring from 25 cents a pound to 80 cents and tomatoes from 9 cents a pound to 45 cents.
Jordanians say they've seen able-bodied men sifting through garbage bins. Middle-class families have begun selling off personal belongings to maintain their lifestyle or forgoing fruit or lamb for weeks.
Mohammed Hadid, a leader of a tribe from which the armed forces draw recruits, was shocked when a retired soldier from his tribe told him he had not eaten meat in five months.
"It's still sinking in," Hadid said.
Despite the global nature of the price increases, governments across the Arab world have come under particularly harsh criticism.
Public service employees, especially those who've served in the security forces, cling to the vision of the state as a caretaker. But policies adopted in recent years have decreased official control of prices. Privatization efforts and free-market slogans have only fueled perceptions of corruption, giving teeth to claims that the region's pro-U.S. governments are corrupt lackeys serving only the elite.
"The economic team doesn't believe in the poor," said economist Kamhawi, who often confers with ranking Jordanian officials. "They only care about the rich. They say, 'The poor are failures. We have no interest in helping failures.' "
Opponents of the U.S.-backed governments in the Middle East have been locking on to the food crisis.
"Let the Workers Eat Cake," blared a headline on the front page of the April 30 edition of Al Akhbar, a Lebanese daily newspaper allied with the Shiite militia Hezbollah. The headline accompanied an article about how the government has delayed a decision to increase the minimum wage.
Other than Islamic charities and social wings of militant groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas, there is no tradition of charitable giving to alleviate pressures on the poor.
In Pakistan, parents increasingly send children to religious madrasas instead of public schools, lured by the free lunches. Madrasas have been prime recruiting grounds for militants.
In Lebanon, Saudi-funded Sunni Muslim charities and political parties, as well as Hezbollah, shield their followers from the worst effects of the rising food prices.
"This system of financially helping the poor by political groups has created a great deal of . . . allegiance to politicians and not to state institutions," said analyst Ziad Ayoubi.
In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front has ramped up its charity programs, offering food baskets and financial help to 32,000 families. Requests for help have jumped 30% this year, said Murad Adaileh, who oversees the group's social services programs. Applications for free bread have jumped 50% since the beginning of the year.
On some days, the line outside the food distribution outlet stretches into the streets. The poor come in droves. Wafa Mansour, 39, a cherub-faced mother of two, visits every other day for bread. "Everything is very expensive," she says. "I can't buy vegetables or meat."
Opposition elements led by the Islamic Action Front have called for strikes to protest the prices and the government's privatization plan and are convening a workshop this month to discuss the situation.
"The [Islamists] will reap the benefits" of the crisis, said economist Kamhawi. "They will win by default."
Analysts and officials worry that the middle class will be sapped of its purchasing power and that more young Muslim men will be driven toward extremist groups.
Arab states are considering the creation of an emergency fund to help alleviate spiraling food prices, according to the Jordanian news agency, Petra.
Many Jordanians say members of the army, the pillar of the regime, are being struck hardest by the crisis, unable to make ends meet on salaries of less than $10 per day.
"When you talk to the police officers and the army they're more and more complaining about everything," said Mohammed Masri, an analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.
Hadid, the tribal leader, recently received reports of security forces selling weapons.
"In the days to come, Al Qaeda won't need to bring weapons and bombs from outside Jordan," Hadid said. "They'll get it from here. The circumstances will allow Al Qaeda to penetrate the security apparatus."
He paused. "There will be explosions."
Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.