150 miles south of Cairo’s burger bars and imported car dealerships, 15-year-old Sara sits mending clothes in the main room of the tiny breeze-block house she shares with her parents and four younger siblings. The room has a clean cement floor and there are faded cotton covers on the wooden couches that double as the family’s 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 black soil of the family’s field with mattocks.
It’s stark and free of any modern conveniences except a battered gas stove, but by the standards of rural Upper Egypt Sara’s is a comfortable home. 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 humid 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, home to the 40% of Egyptians who still work the land. To some, el-Minya, the “Bride of Upper Egypt”, is most famous for its vivid green fields and the rice, wheat and vegetables they produce. Middle-class Cairenes, surrounded by traffic, pollution and corrupt bureaucracy, 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).”
Once, these opinions were also politically fashionable. Under the socialist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser, himself the son of 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% of seats in parliament were reserved for those from “worker and fellah” backgrounds – a provision that survives today, though now open to looser interpretation.
But after decades of Cairo-centric, neo-liberal cronyism, this era seems very distant. A 2011 government study showed that rural poverty, already severe, is on the rise, with farmers struggling both 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 whose responsibility it is to collect it – and teenage girls stand ankle-deep in the murky water at their 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, at first promised change. Rural Egypt provided much of the support for Mohamed Morsi in the 2012 presidential election – the crumbling mud walls of the el-Minya 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 Egyptian countryside’s neglect, Sara may be as eager to sweep him from power in 2016 as her parents were to elect him in 2012.