The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Bringing Tahrir to Upper Egypt

I've written down some notes from my brief trip last week to the Akhmim district of Sohag governorate in Upper Egypt, also referenced in this week's Arabist podcast. I accompanied a Cairo-based party activist back to his family village to see how revolutionaries from the capital were reaching out to the 50+ percent of Egypt's voters who live in rural areas, in advance of parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for November.

Elections in the countryside have traditionally been very hotly contested, without being ideological. Politicians frequently say that the decisive factors are "asabiya" (family solidarity) and "services," meaning government-funded projects. Voters try to candidates into office who have some sort of personal connection to them, be it family or regional or both, who also have the clout to ensure that their village or neighborhood gets a good share of state funds. The candidates who have traditionally performed best are "NDP independents" -- local ruling-party politicians who ran against and defeated the official candidates, but then were welcomed back into the official fold soon after their victory. Now that there was no longer a ruling party, I wanted to get a sense of how other political forces might try to fill the vacuum.

My companion going south was Emam Hassan, a grocer and opposition activist now living in Giza, but with Upper Egyptian origins. Emam is a member of a large tribe which migrated to Egypt from the Arabian peninsula in the 19th century, which is now spread out across Sohag governorate and also has a branch in Minya. His immediate family has lived in Cairo for several generations, but says that he remains active in tribe-centered social life, paying frequent visits to the south and also facilitating visits by his relatives to the capital, usually for medical care.

Emam runs a small grocery off of Pyramids Road. When he became interested in opposition politics a decade ago, he says, his business became a target for harassment by police and local officials, who would attempt to shut him down and/or shake him down for bribes. This experience helped turn Emam into an enthusiastic revolutionary and an eager participant in the January demonstrations which brought down Mubarak. He is now the deputy head of the small Democratic People's Party (Hizb al-Shaab al-Dimuqrati), whose positions as described by Emam would probably site it on the populist left -- anti-Islamist, somewhat socialist, critical of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces but also critical of the current occupation of Tahrir square, etc.

We stayed with Emam's maternal uncle, the Sheikh al-Balad (the state-appointed village elder, roughly) of Arab al-Tambakiya, a village of about 10-15 thousand inhabitants right alongside the Nile, just outside the Akhmim district center. The residents of Arab al-Tambakiya considered their village to be poor, even by local standards. Standing by the river the river at night, you could look upstream at the brightly-lit minarets of "Bandar Akhmim"  (the town of Akhmim, "Bandar" being "port" in Persian) -- a strong contrast to the dim single bulbs dangling from rusty powerlines in Tambakiya's alleys. The village houses did have running water, but they resented that the sewage system of the "Bandar" ended about 200 meters shy of their own residences. The roads to Arab al-Tambakiya were dirt-packed tracks running through the fields, so when an outgoing car met an incoming three-wheeled minicab, several minutes of shallow pivoting and reversing were needed before one could get by the other. Consequently, ambulances and fire engines rarely responded to village emergencies. Finally, the local state-subsidized bakery had broken down and not been replaced, and the villagers had to walk to a bakery in Akhmim where the locals, annoyed by bigger crowds and longer waits, would berate them.

Arab al-Tambakiya was a reminder that while to my eye, rural Egypt might seem undifferentiatedly neglected, the residents perceived considerable inequalities in state investment based on where you lived. Some families in Arab al-Tambakiya were clearly wealthier than others, with bigger houses and more furniture and presumably somewhat more land, but everyone was still tethered to the same tattered infrastructure and exhausting daily routines. Tambakiya residents attributed this neglect to their lack of political clout. Arab al-Tambakiya had few voters compared to the Bandar, so the Bandar tended to supply the successful politicians who could lobby with the regional governor for funds.

But although they were cynical about the Mubarak-era political order, they weren't necessarily enthusiastic revolutionaries. Tambakiya residents said repeatedly that they felt cut off from events in the capital. Mohammed, a tall and charismatic younger cousin of Emam who seemed to be an up-and-coming village leader, said that while he thought that the demonstrators "showed manhood" standing up to the police, he wasn't convinced that the entire regime was corrupt and needed to be replaced -- he'd thought that the rot only reached to two or three ministries. It wasn't after the revolution that he'd learned about the full scale of the corruption. This correlated with the impression I'd had from conversations with others in Cairo and the Delta: there had remained some lingering sympathy for Mubarak until it started to be revealed how much money he had stashed away outside the country, and then people started thinking of him less as a strong patriarch who had provided peace and stability, and more as a dictator who had robbed the national till.

Tambakiya residents said that the revolution had already brought some modest improvements, particularly in terms of the behavior of the police. Before January, officers would occasionally descend on in the village and search houses for illegal firearms, thus allowing them to make their monthly quota. Usually, the individuals singled out were the poorest, those least likely to have influential relatives who could make a fuss on their behalf. We spoke to one older fisherman who had been grabbed by the river patrol and interrogated about hidden weapons (he had a scar on his foot from an injury he said he had received during the interrogation). In the end, the fisherman said, he had to run out and buy a gun from a neighbor to present to the officer, so that the officer would file the case and go away. However, police harassment had stopped after January, residents said -- the police were now afraid of the people, rather than the other way around.

Not everyone I met was as positive about the revolution. The evening of our arrival, we drove to the other side of the Bandar to the neighborhood of Nag Fadl to visit another branch of Emam's family. (The neighborhood had plumbing, which was much remarked upon by the Tambakiya contingent). One of the members of the Nag Fadl branch was also the former NDP municipal secretary, and he was put on the defensive by Emam's revolutionary enthusiasm. The "Mubarak era", he said, had been good for Egyptian villages -- if Arab al-Tambakiya lacked government services, it was because there was little state land in the proximity of the village, and thus no place to build them.

I asked the NDP secretary whom he would support in upcoming elections. He responded fiercely that the president of Egypt needed to be a military man, because only a military man would be strong enough to govern the place. "Or a member of the Muslim Brothers," piped up a bearded young geography student who identified himself as a Salafi. The NDP secretary agreed that he would accept a Brother as an alternative. I have no idea whether this particular conversation reflected what seems to be a national-level understanding between Islamists and SCAF, or a shared sense of alienation from the left/liberal ethos of the Tahrir revolution, or was simply the dynamics of this particular family.

The next day, back in Arab al-Tambakiya, I sat in on another conversation in which Emam tried to convince the villagers to nominate one of their number for parliament, presumably on the Hizb al-Shaab al-Dimuqrati ticket. There was a brief discussion of the party platform, with Emam defending its calls for a "civil state": "religion corrupts politics, and politics corrupts religion." He said that the party had a campaign to "liberate al-Azhar" -- a reference to demands by al-Azhar's faculty that their leadership no longer be appointed by the state. This seemed to go down well enough with the villagers, as did Emam's street protest stories from January. (He distanced himself however from the current occupation).

The Tambakiya residents however were pretty lukewarm about the idea of a villager running for parliament, in part, as I understood it, because they did not want to get themselves labelled as anti-government and thus cause themselves problems. Emam responded that the new system was not going to be more of the same old old clientelism. Egypt would be a "parliamentary rather than a presidential system", ie, that the legislature would have real power, and thus there was going to be more to political participation than simply ingratiating yourselves with the regime. This did not appear to convince. Villagers conceded that the fall of Mubarak and the ensuing prosecutions might reduce police brutality and official corruption, but did not seem to think that there had yet been any fundamental changes in the way that the country was going to be governed.

Arab al-Tambakiya is obviously only a small part of rural Egypt, and we're still several months away from the casting of ballots. Presumably, the flow of Cairo-based party activist back to their home villages will increase, as the elections draw nearer. So, I don't want to predict that clientelist politics will dominate the countryside as it has in the past. However, I do think that the attitudes in Tambakiya shed some light on why Muslim Brothers, the Salafis, and others consider it in their interests to associate themselves with SCAF. Villagers may resent how they are treated by the political establishment, but they also don't want to cut their ties with it.

Steve Negus3 Comments