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…