The Saeedis Awake

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | September 2004 

From Islamist violence to new patterns of development, more has happened in Upper Egypt over the past 25 years than one might imagine. But is it ready to take on a more globalized world?

A basic, somewhat superficial division separates bahari and qibli, the north and the south, of this nation: development and a sense of marginalization.

 

Ask any Egyptian not from the region about El-Saeed, home to about 20 million people along a 900-kilometer stretch of the Nile River valley from Giza to Abu Simbel, and you’ll likely be told that it is backward, underdeveloped, and plagued by poverty, ignorance and disease—and that its inhabitants are naïve, hardheaded and sporadically violent.

 

But Upper Egypt is far from one long homogeneous mass of covered women and men in emmas and galabeyyas. The Upper Egypt of Qena and Aswan is hardly the same as the Upper Egypt of Sohag, Assiut and Minya, although they do have one thing in common. 

 

“What unites the people of Upper Egypt is an acute sense of marginalization, of being neglected and left out, that the government does not care about us,” says Reem Saad, an associate professor at the American University in Cairo’s Social Research Center.

 

In fact, this swath of marginalized Egypt has progressed considerably over the past quarter century. The education level has risen, agriculture is increasingly mechanized, transportation and communication networks have expanded, electricity and water plants have been built, and health care and education have improved.

 

“Most of the indicators would show what you might call improvements—literacy rates are higher, life expectancy is higher, infant mortality is lower,”‌ says Nicholas S. Hopkins, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science at the American University in Cairo. “Most of the indicators of that kind are moving in the right direction for Egypt as a whole, including Upper Egypt.”‌ 

 

Still, Upper Egypt remains more rural, less educated, less healthy and poorer than the rest of the nation. 

 

“The fact that life expectancy is going up and infant mortality is going down is an indicator that something is happening in the health sector that is positive,” says Hopkins. “But by almost any economic indicator you look at, Upper Egypt scores lower than the rest of Egypt, including the estimate of per capita income and so on. In that sense they are closer to the edge.”

 

What everyone agrees on is that Upper Egypt is in great need of development. 

 

One only needs to flash back to February 2002, days before the Muslim feast to mark Eid El-Adha, to comprehend their acute feeling of being on the fringe. The aging carriages of the ill-fated Luxor-bound train 873—which were not equipped with fire alarms, fire extinguishers or emergency brakes—were an accident waiting to happen. 

 

Hundreds died when a fire broke out on the train. The official figure stands at just over 360; Upper Egyptians claim the figure is over 1,000.

 

“I will not allow any effort to hide the truth or cover up any aspect of what happened, because the calamity is great, the accident grave,”‌ President Hosni Mubarak proclaimed in a television address on Eid El-Adha. “We have ordered competent authorities to conduct a complete investigation to clearly determine responsibility and to hold accountable anyone proved to have fallen short in their duties or who were careless in providing safety,” he said.

 

Television cameras rolling, then-Prime Minister Atef Ebeid maintained that the train had started its journey without any technical difficulties and that there was no evidence of inadequate safety measures. 

 

“All trains are in good shape,”‌ Ebeid claimed, “and at the highest degree of efficiency. They are reviewed completely and regularly.”‌

 

The blame for the inferno was placed squarely on the third-class passengers themselves, who were faulted for carrying kerosene stoves aboard the train. After the dust settled, nothing was done for the victims or their bereaved families, who possessed little in the way of political clout. This, along with every other calamity that befalls the nation’s poor, was dismissed as an act of God

 

A trip home

The village of Al-Munshah, my father’s birthplace on the West Bank of the Nile, is 11 kilometers and one train stop south of Sohag. There, you’ll find no taxis, no pay phones, and no hotels or cinemas. 

 

Like the Nile, daily life ebbs and flows with a calm, predictable regularity. The morning papers arrive in Al-Munshah from Cairo at about 6:45 am aboard train 90. The village has two churches, dozens of mosques and two bridges crossing a canal. Distances can easily be traversed by a brief trek, but horse-drawn carriages can be summoned for a lift. 

 

The village has two public squares. One, along Al-Gideed Street, is called Abdel Nasser Square, marked by a bust of the late president. The other is called Martyrs Square, where a white stone block is inscribed with the names of village residents who have died in the nation’s wars. Mud brick dwellings are gradually giving way to red brick and concrete structures. 

 

Even in this place of quiet isolation, there is an increased sense of the outside world. Satellite dishes flank rooftops in even the smallest villages in Upper Egypt, and everywhere you hear the ringing of mobile phones. At local cafés, villagers surround the television set, an appliance that has soaked deep into the social fabric.

 

Farming is central to Upper Egyptian life, and sugarcane is the mainstay of its agrarian economy. For centuries, the livelihood of villagers was regulated by the annual flooding of the Nile, Egypt’s liquid lifeline. The construction of the Aswan High Dam tamed the river’s waters, giving rise to perennial cultivation. Further change in land tenure occurred with the implementation of Law 96 of 1992, which introduced market-driven liberalization to the agricultural sector, reversing the land reforms of Gamal Abdel Nasser. 

 

“You will find that agriculture is still the principle economic activity because of the phenomenon of the part-time farmer,”‌ says AUC’s Saad. “Many people practice farming and they practice other occupations as well. Many people who are government employees are also farmers.”‌ 

 

Land reclamation schemes are being undertaken all along the valley. The grandest of them is Toshka, where the Nile River’s waters are being diverted to meet the needs of new and expanding cities. The regime’s pet project began in early 1997 to pump water from Lake Nasser into a canal irrigating a half million feddans and opening up land for new cities, tourist villages and industry in a new Nile valley in Egypt’s Southern Desert.

 

Industrialization

Despite all the hype heralding its launch, Toshka has yet to deliver on its promises of employment for Upper Egyptians.

 

Upper Egypt has long been a source of migrants to Cairo and other large urban centers. In the last generation Upper Egyptians found work laboring in the Gulf. More recently, expansive development of the Red Sea coast—Hurghada, Safaga, Marsa Allam—has offered jobs to Upper Egyptians in search of work. 

 

But joblessness remains the main problem among Upper Egyptians, and the lack of an industrial base limits employment opportunities. Industrial zones have been set up in the governorates of Upper Egypt: Beni Suef, Minya, Assiut, Sohag, Qena and Luxor. But these attempts to provide much-needed employment for the region’s youth have, as yet, not been very effective. Transport costs are still high and government incentives have failed to attract a critical mass of new industries.

 

“Egypt, in a sense, is also de-industrializing, shifting from heavy industry to light industry: from iron and steel to textiles and garment manufacturing,” says Hopkins. “If you think about where there is an industrial working class in Egypt, as a ratio it has to be less now than it was 25 years ago because factories have either closed or downsized.” 

 

What remain are agriculture, tourism, and the small-scale service sector.

 

Cottage industries and traditional crafts—weaving, pottery and blacksmiths—proliferate in villages and towns of Upper Egypt.

 

“These crafts are not disappearing, although for many, many years they have always looked on the verge of extinction,” says Saad. “The hand-made and the traditional appeals to elite and cosmopolitan tastes. On the demand side there is an appreciation for the local.”

 

This is the case in Akhmim (famous for silks, embroidery and weaving) in the governorate of Sohag, and in Garagos and Nagada (traditionally a weaving village since antiquity), in Qena. In these villages, you can find weavers spinning cloths on simple looms.

 

The Nagada fashion boutique in Zamalek’s Dar el-Shifa Street took its name, and initially its collection, from the textile and weaving village in Upper Egypt that specializes in producing a special fabric of uniform shapes and colors called the firka.

 

Tribalism

Deep in the heart of Upper Egypt, tourism is vigilantly overseen by security forces. Police roadblocks dot the two-lane highways between Cairo and Upper Egypt. Foreign visitors may venture outside the main cities and tourist sites only in police-guarded convoys. Villages such as Akhmim, Garagos and Nagada are most affected by security policies that are designed to protect foreigners, but also restrict social research.

 

“I don’t think it is easy to do research anywhere in rural Egypt. Maybe Upper Egypt is tougher than the Delta because there are still more concerns about security,” says Hopkins. “If you are a social researcher, the last thing you want to do is arrive at someone’s doorstep with a police escort.” 

 

The social foundation of Upper Egypt is not built on the individual, but on the individual as part of a group. 

 

“The clan or tribe or village is the basic social unit. The individual is always bound in his relations with others. It is his basic defense,” explains Diaa Rashwan, head of the Institute for Comparative Politics at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies. 

 

By extension, voting and political participation follow clan and tribal loyalties.

 

“There is an ancient pattern in most of the villages in southern Upper Egypt, which is organized according to a form of tribalism,” concurs Saad. “So you would find each tribe living in a quarter, including the Christians. Usually the Christians in the village would be under the protection of a large tribe. So any assault or affront or aggression against any Christian member would directly mean that it is an assault on that tribe. It is a kind of safety mechanism in a way.” 

 

A greater importance is placed on ancestry, kinship ties and tribal lineage in Upper Egypt. Strong, too, are the sense of honor and the concept of the blood feud or vendetta. This has led to outbreaks of group violence, including revenge killings. A feud is another form of political rivalry. 

 

“The practice of the vendetta in Upper Egypt has positive, not negative, implications because it averts aggression by offering a means of collective security [from] any group that trespasses against another group, whether rich or poor, because it knows well that aggression will be met with violent retaliation,”‌ Rashwan maintains.

 

Not all disputes break out in violence, though. Customary law has strong roots in Upper Egypt and reconciliation councils are highly formalized. Many of the disputes are settled within these unofficial councils.

 

By comparison, Rashwan points out, there are fewer incidents of violence in Upper Egypt than in Cairo. “The violence in Upper Egypt is predictable. You won’t find random acts of violence as witnessed in the slums of Cairo or elsewhere.”

 

“Upper Egyptians do not see the issue of vendetta as a problem,”‌ adds Choukry Fouad, a retired diplomat who was born in Assiut in 1932 and served as Egypt’s ambassador to Yugoslavia. “They think this is something natural. Cairo newspapers write about it with shock and amazement, as if it were something strange and uncivilized. In Upper Egypt, it is not considered something negative. On the contrary, it is considered something positive. They see it as a tradition that needs to be respected.”

 

Islamism

The mid-1990s marked a period of intense confrontation between the Egyptian state security apparatus and armed Islamist groups. Extremist forms of Islamic militant politics have been nearly extinguished since the massacre of more than 50 tourists at the temple of Hatshepsut in Deir Al-Bahari in 1997, yet Upper Egypt is still associated with the image of militant Islam. 

 

“I hate to say that the government policing, and the violent repression [are] the reasons why it went away,” remarks Saad. “On the contrary, it is why it stayed that long—because of the government repression, it turned into a vendetta between the groups and the government.

 

“Many people believe that the main antagonism is between militant Islamists and secularists,”‌ Saad continues. “I think it is between the violent forms of political practice that had an Islamic banner and the ordinary people, who found it disruptive and did not relate to it. It did not really have that much support from them.” 

 

When development came to Upper Egypt, it came too late. “Development programs came later than in the Delta, Cairo and Alexandria,” says Fouad. “Development and planning have traditionally been focused on Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Port Said and Ismailia.”

 

In the end, militancy jolted the complacency of Cairo’s officials. 

 

“What made the government pay more attention to Upper Egypt in the past 25 years is the appearance of violent movements,”‌ Fouad notes. “There was also the opinion that poverty, unemployment and poor infrastructure were feeding into this anger.” 

 

Since then, new schools, libraries and cultural centers have been established and businessmen’s associations have started up. 

 

“Upper Egypt does not have more problems than the rest of Egypt, but [the problems] are larger in magnitude,”‌ says Fouad, citing the examples of public education, health care and other social services.

 

Faith

Assiut is Upper Egypt’s largest city and, essentially, its capital. Upper Egypt’s first university was established here in 1956. It was later followed by universities in Minya and the South Valley (with campuses in Sohag, Qena and Aswan), in addition to branches of Al-Azhar. 

 

Assiut sports its own high-class neighborhoods that resemble Heliopolis with its fashionable commercial strips, where you’ll find Dalydress and BTM/Marie Louis. A KFC has opened up and the Tourism and Shopping Festival has staked a claim in this Upper Egyptian city. 

 

On 23 July Street, the Renaissance Cinema, Assiut’s only theater, features four Arabic-language films, including Ruby’s flick Sabaa Wara’ Kutchina (Seven Playing Cards).

 

On Fridays in Al-Nasir Mosque, one of Assiut’s most popular houses of worship, Imam Abdel Khalik Ahmed Abdel Razik, who traces his lineage to Sayyida Zeinab, delivers a one-and-a-half hour Friday sermon so spiritual and riveting that it moves some worshippers to fits of weeping. A vibrant, colorful and popular religiosity flourishes in Upper Egypt. Moulids and other religious festivals, both Muslim and Christian, attract thousands of pilgrims. 

 

The greatest concentration of Christians in Upper Egypt is in the governorate of Assiut, followed by Minya, Sohag and Qena. In years past, flare-ups of sectarian strife in Upper Egypt have made headlines locally and internationally. 

 

“My own feeling is that where there are bad issues in Muslim–Christian relations, there are other problems in that area, too,”‌ says Hopkins. “It all kind of works together to produce something unpleasant: social tension between rich and poor, land pressure, fights between clans, feuds of one kind or another. It kind of spills over into Muslim–Christian relations rather than emanating from them.” 

 

In a sense, Hopkins says, Upper Egyptians are more conscious of their faiths and the differences between them than their peers elsewhere in the nation. 

 

“They were very aware that they had to pay particular attention not to have a fight that would break along those lines,”‌ he says. “If there was a dispute between a Muslim and a Christian all kinds of people got involved in the dispute. If it was two Muslims, they would probably settle it much more quietly.”‌

 

Often, Upper Egyptians see the expansion of one religion as threatening and cause for tension. 

 

“Usually it has to do with church building, or trying to mend a wall, or has something to do with construction and building—anything that is perceived as Christians expanding their public space,” says Saad. 

 

The state has imposed sharp limits on the building of churches, and permits are hard to come by. 

 

Rashwan argues that Christian–Muslim relations in Upper Egypt are not particularly different from elsewhere in Egypt. “There has been violence between Muslims and Christians greater than that witnessed in Kosheh [in 2000], such as what happened in Beit Allam, for example,”‌ says Rashwan, referring to the infamous blood feud that killed 22 members of one family in the governorate of Sohag in 2002.

 

Changing for tomorrow

Inevitably, the communications age is encroaching on Upper Egypt, bringing with it social and political transformation. 

 

Villagers, like urban dwellers, are eager to afford luxuries like color television sets, satellite dishes, pricey cellular phones, and automatic washing machines. These luxuries and necessities may or may not contribute to a waning sense of communal identity. 

 

“Globalization means the world is becoming more interactive,”‌ observes Saad Eddin Ibrahim, noted human-rights activist and professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. “Mutual dependence becomes greater, and awareness of what is going on worldwide becomes more widespread. The impact of it on our people in the region is to make them more conscious, comparing themselves to the rest of the world, and therefore more restless.” 

 

Social attitudes across Upper Egypt will evolve, says Saad. 

 

“But globalization—not just in Egypt and not just for Upper Egypt—does not mean instant and homogeneous takeover of a Coca-Cola and McDonald’s culture.”‌ 

 

The challenge in Upper Egypt is the search for a renewed identity that allows traditional mores to co-exist with the Golden Arches.