x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

In Upper Egypt, finding a voice few have ever heard

The revolution means some change, and more hope, in a provincial capital in Upper Egypt.

The Nile is wide at Qena, the capital of Upper Egypt's largest governorate. Downtown is mostly comprised of boxy low-rises, built in the last 20 years and already the worse for the wear. But the wide streets are clean-swept and lined with trees. Foreign journalists are rare around here and within minutes of arriving earlier this month I attracted a crowd in front of a polling station during parliamentary run-off elections. There were dozens of men, anxious to be heard.

Asked what Qena's biggest problem was, they answered in unison: "unemployment". A man who identified himself as a civil servant explained: "Egypt was once number one in agriculture," he said. "We were a farming country and proud of it. Then [Hosni] Mubarak came and tried to force the American version of industrial economy down our throats. If we had agricultural reform instead, Egypt would be in great shape right now." His voice wavered with emotion as the crowd murmured its agreement.

"Egypt is run by thieves," added the owner of a nearby kiosk. "The big ones eat the small ones. Yes, things are changing [post-Mubarak] but you won't feel it overnight."

Aside from several sugar refineries, an aluminium and a cement plant, Qena governorate's population of around 3 million relies mostly on farming. Former President Mubarak's Cairo-centric regime not only neglected this and other rural provinces, it exploited them, offering farmers loans at extortionate interest rates and imprisoning them for default, overcharging for necessities like fertiliser and pesticide, and purchasing crops at below cost.

But provincial neglect also translates into a degree of autonomy. Rural towns and villages have long since learned to fend for themselves, sharing limited water resources, providing low cost public transport, maintaining "councils of elders" to settle local disputes and establishing marketplaces to sell their produce.

Upper Egypt is frequently described as tribal, a dismissive term that fails to take these beneficial social mechanisms into account. Self-organisation comes naturally to people who know their neighbours, often members of an extended family, and it's a talent that is already proving useful in the transition to democracy.

Since the Ministry of Manpower's 2011 decree that workers can form independent unions, farmers have started presenting their demands as a united front, attracting attention to agricultural issues of national importance while empowering a major segment (around 25 to 30 per cent) of the workforce. Rural youth in Qena and nearby Luxor have organised groups to protect their neighbourhoods, assist the needy and provide civilian surveillance of the voting process.

With 1.5 million voters, Qena governorate is entitled to 18 seats in the lower house of parliament. One of the run-off candidates, representing the political arm of the radical Gamaa Al Islamiyya, had many vocal supporters. "These people will clean things up, and give us justice," they said. Ending corruption is a priority; in choosing religious-oriented candidates Egyptians voted for a set of honoured values more than political plans and programs.

Voter turnout was high in Qena, where citizens were committed to participating in what was perceived as Egypt's first fair elections. When Abdel Rehim El Ghoul (a despised member of the former ruling National Democratic Party and former chairman of the parliamentary agriculture committee) beat the popular Freedom and Justice party candidate Ali Ibrahim El Shishini, voters in Nag Hammadi to the north staged a sit-in at the railway station.

Several hundred Nag Hammadi men travelled 60 kilometres to Qena to demand a re-vote at the local office of the judiciary. A young lawyer for the Wasat Party, Ahmed Ibrahim Fawy, explained how voting was clean until the ballot boxes were transported and counted, a process that involved some of Mr El Ghoul's employees and relatives.

In response to public pressure, judges annulled the election results and called for a fresh round. Now it was Mr El Ghoul's supporters turn to protest, shutting down a road prior to the final run-offs to prevent citizens from voting. Despite these tactics, Mr El Ghoul was defeated.

For decades, NDP big shots were known to rig elections and confident they could get away with it. Those days are gone. "This never would have happened before the revolution," said Mr Fawy, surveying the crowd of adamant farmers. "People know they have a voice now and they're using it."


Maria Golia is author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt