Anger in the valley
On the eve of war against Iraq Soha Abdelaty finds provincial Egypt far from sleepy
Sheikh Saleh El-Belaissy does not head off to a job at a government office each day. As a 50-year-old peasant in the small village of Mokataa in Daqahliya governorate, El-Belaissy rises at dawn to tend the land. His routine is quite different from that of any urban Egyptian, nevertheless, when El- Belaissy's day winds up, he'll head to the nearest coffee-shop to unwind and watch the latest updates about Iraq on the "Arab CNN", Al-Jazeera. And like most urban Egyptians, that's when he vents his frustration over US policies in the Middle East.
Many Cairenes hold the view that economic, political and international crises only resonate in the capital and that their fellow Egyptians elsewhere just aren't interested.
"People say the world is one village," says El- Belaissy, "We watch Al- Jazeera, we know what's happening. America is siding with Israel -- not the Palestinians -- and it's employing double-standards. It wants to fight Iraq, even though it [Iraq] has already destroyed its missiles and is implementing UN resolutions," the exasperated peasant adds.
The problem with people in the provinces, insist many villagers, is not one of a lack of knowledge or awareness, but of apathy resulting from a lack of outlets through which to voice their opposition. "Our voices are not heard," says Sabri Ali, a former school principal in Mokataa. "In Cairo, they have media coverage, but here, no one comes to cover anything," he adds.
Egypt's provincial areas have witnessed numerous protests in recent months. When Israeli troops encircled Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's compound during March of last year, demonstrations erupted across the country. Some of the largest took place at the universities of Tanta and Zaqaziq. Those areas also witnessed protests over Iraq in the past couple of months, although on a smaller scale.
"We hear about protests in the West, and we're the last ones to act. We should've started the protests," says Mohamed Said, as he sits in a park in the Upper Egyptian city of Menya. "It's odd and regrettable. Have we been paid to be quiet, or what?" he asks .
"It's fear", says Abdel- Sattar, a doctor in Mansoura, in the Delta. "The simple peasant is more aware than the Cairene, but he, too, has been paralysed by the Emergency Law," he adds. The law has been in place since 1981, and prohibits people from demonstrating in the streets. "Even when they [Cairenes] did have a demonstration, the government put them in a stadium to control them," Abdel-Sattar points out, referring to a demonstration held last month in the Cairo Stadium that was reportedly organised, with government sanction, by the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
But the government has placed restrictions on people in other ways as well. "The youth want to fight [alongside the Iraqis], they should let us go fight," says 23-year- old Sahar Abdel-Ghani from Tanta. "We can do nothing, we just follow the [government's] decisions," she adds.
In addition, many believe that protesting is a luxury for people in the West, whom they assume do not have to worry about staying afloat financially. "Do you want people to leave their jobs to go protest?" asks Abdel-Fattah El-Hawaty, an iron smith from Tanta. "They'll come back the next day and find their jobs gone," he adds.
Whether in Mokataa, the vicinity of Tanta, or the governorate of Daqahliya, Egyptians are expressing similar sentiments. They despair that the war is inevitable and fear it will have a catastrophic impact on the national economy. "The situation is already at a standstill -- even before a war has broken out. The economy will come to a complete halt when war erupts," El-Hawaty says. "Prices are already going up. How can one get married?" the single Abdel-Ghani adds.
But that is not the only reason people dread the war. All those who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly believe that what is happening to their Iraqi "brothers" is unfair and unjust. Some feel a bond with the citizens of the Gulf country by virtue of sharing the same religion of Islam. But Copts in the countryside are also sympathetic and recall the days when many Egyptians worked in Iraq.
"We pray for them [the Iraqis] every day," says Ramzy Qased, an engineer in Menya, as he stands in the courtyard of a Coptic shelter for homeless children. "There was a time when almost everyone here had at least one family member in Iraq," he recalls. "Saddam Hussein used to take care of them," Qased adds.
And even though many feel that Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was a mistake, he should be given a chance to make up for that. "We all think he made a mistake, but let's give him a chance, and if he doesn't [disarm], then we can punish him," says Ali.
Many doubt that the inspections will be of any use in averting a war. To most, it is all a sham. "They're deceiving him, getting him to destroy his missiles then they'll attack him," believes Imam El-Sayed, who runs the cultural centre in Mokataa.
Egyptians living in the countryside are also frustrated with what they believe is a lack of Arab unity in the face of a danger posing a threat to the Arab nation as a whole. Many expressed their disappointment with the recent Arab League summit that was held in Sharm El- Sheikh on 28 February. "We want to feel that there's really an Arab League, when I hear that there's a meeting, I want to know that it will come up with real results that give us hope," says El- Belaissy. Others say that the Arabs have been divided, and not all Arab regimes want to stand up to the US. "Some Arabs have interests with the Americans," says Wasfi Aziz, an engineer in Menya.
Whether it is in their homes, their workplaces, or just at their daily hangouts, Egyptians in the provinces are following events with considerable apprehension. They sympathise with the Iraqi people, and are worried about the fate awaiting Palestinians in the event of a war.
"The US will pursue one Arab country after another. My child could face the situation that now confronts Iraqi children," says 32-year- old Hanan, the mother of two in Tanta.