While liberal activists in Egypt's cities have demonstrated their clout, many say it is the often overlooked conservative countryside that will ultimately decide the country's political future.
Egypt's Islamists court crucial rural vote
BENI SUEF, Egypt // Along the two-lane highway from Cairo to Beni Suef, a fertile region long neglected by the central government, the poverty that plagues rural Egypt is on full display.
As the second round of voting for parliamentary seats got underway in nine mainly rural regions on Wednesday, unemployed day labourers loitered dejectedly under Islamist party banners fluttering over motorway intersections.
Their worn, drawn profiles suggest the hopes aroused by the removal of Hosni Mubarak in February and the country's first free elections have given way to the realisation that no amount of political change will quickly ease the daunting economic problems this country faces.
"People here will reach 40 years and they will still be unemployed," said Ahmed Hilal, 43, an out-of-work day labourer from the farming village of Dimushiyyash, about three hours south-west of Cairo.
Donkey-drawn carts carry the fellaheen, Egypt's farmer class, across the mud-and dung-slapped bridges that link the dusty hamlets to the motorway. The pumps at the petrol station along the main road were empty.
While liberal activists in Cairo and Egypt's other main cities have demonstrated their clout to extract high-profile concessions from Egypt's ruling military regime, many say it is the often overlooked conservative countryside that will ultimately decide the country's political future.
As much as 57 per cent of Egypt's 85 million people live in rural areas, despite the country's sprawling cities, according to the World Bank.
The social and economic make-up of the region south of Cairo - poor, sectarian and courted heavily by both Islamists and the patronage networks of former operatives of Mr Mubarak - will have crucial implications for any new political order. More than one in five Egyptians live below the official poverty line of US$2 a day (Dh7.35).
This area from Beni Suef south to Luxor has 40 per cent of Egypt's people but 70 per cent of its poor.
Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Al Nour party, swept the first round of elections held in urban centres last month.
The dimmed electoral prospects of liberal and secularist parties appear to have no chance of being reversed here.
"In the governorates where the majority work in agriculture, the voters there will be more biased in the direction of the Islamists," said Dr Mohamed El Said Idris, an analyst at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "They are more conservative and the Islamists have a history there. This much is clear."
The poor farming townships that stretch south along the Nile, from Beni Suef in the north to Qena in the south, gave birth to Egypt's violent Islamist insurgency in the 1990s and spawned the Al Qaeda leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri.
Amid the sizable minority Christian populations that dot the region, support for Islamists, though not for the violent tactics of some, remains strong.
Beni Suef, a backwater of 2.5 million people with little infrastructure, offers a microcosm of the political battles underway in the countryside, where solutions for economic problems are scarce and religious affiliation has become paramount.
Many in Beni Suef's Coptic Christian community feel under siege after several sectarian attacks and Islamist opposition to the construction of new churches in the area.
"If the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Nour come to power, there will be religious problems," said Salwa Gaber, a Christian. "They will impose an Islamic state and we don't want this. When I was growing up, Muslims and Christians were sharing this country. Now there are differences."
Muslim Brotherhood and Al Nour representatives in Beni Suef said many Christians voted for Islamists. But most Christians said they voted for Al Wafd, a secular party that won 9 per cent of the vote in the first round, in a bid to counter what they see as an impending Islamist takeover of parliament.
For all the talk of ideology as a decisive faultline, polling places here underscore a key factor in the Islamists' electoral success - they are simply better organised.
Al Nour and Freedom and Justice maintained an extensive presence of monitors and representatives at polling stations across the city to assist voters.
Al Wafd and the Egyptian Bloc, a coalition of liberal parties led by the Coptic Christian telecommunications tycoon, Naguib Sawiris, were all but absent at the polls and on some ballots.
"I want to vote for the Egyptian Bloc but they are not running a candidate in my district," said Ismat Maikel Ibrahim, a retired business owner and Coptic resident.
The Islamists have strong support in the villages, where the conventional wisdom is that they will provide solutions to economic woes.
"We need services. We need clean water and we need a sewage system," said Ahmed Labib, 39, a social worker at a primary school in Dimushiyyash. The area boasts a population of about 17,000, the majority of whom are wheat and bean farmers.
But the village does not have a proper sewage treatment system and illiteracy is as high as 44 percent, according to some aid groups.
The average illiteracy rate in Egypt is 22 per cent.
"The people here are religious," Mr Labib said. "Al Nour will win and they will fix these things."
An Al Nour monitor and lawyer, Mohamed Shehata Mohamed Sorour, 38, was at a polling station to answer questions about his party's policies for Beni Suef.
"Our first priority is to achieve economic stability, with small investments and investments from the Arab world," Mr Sorour said. "We want to reform the police and ensure the right of everyone to participate in political life."
When asked about the possible return of figures associated with Mr Mubarak's regime - whom many want to see banned from political participation but who are running as independent candidates in various districts - Mr Hilal, the day labourer, dismissed their importance in the face of Islamist strength.
"They are running here," he said, thumbing his prayer beads. "But they will not succeed."