Rural Egypt has provided crucial support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Will rising poverty lead to disillusionment?by Rachel Aspden / October 26, 2012 / Leave a comment
150 miles south of Cairo’s burger bars and imported car dealerships, 15-year-old Sara sits mending clothes in her family’s tiny breeze-block house. In the main room, wooden couches double as the seven family members’ beds. There are posters of Mecca and Medina on the wall and a faded Mohamed Morsi campaign sticker by the door. Behind the house, a tethered water buffalo noses in a trough while two men slowly break the soil of the family’s field with mattocks.
Sara’s home is free of any modern conveniences except a battered gas stove, but by the standards of rural Upper Egypt it’s comfortable. At her neighbours’ house, eight people live crammed in a windowless mud and straw room strewn with old clothes and litter. The air is stale and there is no running water, electricity or sewage. The family relies on an old gas lamp for the long evenings and water has to be fetched from tolerant neighbours—a different house each time. It’s a scene from another century.
Cairo may be more visible, but areas like el-Minya governorate, where Sara lives, are the hidden heartland of Egypt—57 per cent of the country’s population live in the countryside. El-Minya, the “bride of Upper Egypt,” is famous for its vivid green fields and the rice, wheat and vegetables they produce. Middle-class Cairenes, surrounded by traffic and pollution, romanticise its rustic way of life. “This is the real Egypt—fresh air, clean water, real food with no chemicals,” one TV producer told me. “The countryside is where we all came from, and we love it so much,” added an English teacher. “The people are natural and unspoilt, the women have so much hayaa’ (modesty).”
These opinions used to be politically fashionable. Under the socialist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was born into a lower-middle-class family, the Egyptian fellah (peasant farmer) became an iconic figure. Nasser’s 1952 land reforms gave poor tenant farmers rights to the land they worked in perpetuity, and 50 per cent of seats in parliament were reserved for those from “worker and fellah” backgrounds—a provision that survives today, though it is now open to looser interpretation.
But after decades of Cairo-centric, neoliberal cronyism, that era seems distant. A 2011 government study showed that rural poverty, already severe, is on the rise. Farmers struggle to afford essential supplies of seed and fertiliser and to feed their own families. The effects of state neglect in el-Minya are clear. Canals are choked with refuse (local authorities can’t agree on who’s responsible for collecting it) and teenage girls stand ankle-deep in the murky water at the margins, washing clothes and dishes. The reach of even the most basic infrastructure is patchy. “Almost half of the homes have no running water,” says local NGO worker Mohammed Bahr.
The ousting of Mubarak and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, traditionally sympathetic to the poor and needy, initially promised change. Rural Egypt provided much of the support for Morsi in June’s presidential election—the crumbling mud walls of el-Minya’s villages are dotted with old campaign posters—and his manifesto was sympathetic to small farmers’ plight. “I’m one of you in terms of roots and upbringing,” he told farmers last month. But so far his government has done little to address the causes or effects of their slide into even deeper poverty. Unless Morsi can reverse the countryside’s neglect, Sara may be as eager to sweep him from power in 2016 as her parents were to elect him.