Breakaway town folks
After declaring their independence from Daqahliya governorate, residents of Al-Tahseen village have gone on hunger strike, Ahmed Morsy talked to the activists
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From top: the entrance of Al-Tahseen and the road the villagers want paved; residents of the impoverished village have to take a long journey every day to work and school. Below, Al-Ahram Weekly speaks to distraught inhabitants
Two weeks ago, residents of Al-Tahseen village in the Daqahliya governorate announced what they called was their "administrative independence" from their governorate to protest against the lack of facilities. After a while, inhabitants of the rebellious village did something more than just talk -- they decided not to pay any government utility bills. On Saturday, 20 inhabitants of the village, located 140 kilometres north of Cairo, went on hunger strike after the governor officially disregarded their demands.
"We are forgotten," Eman Mohamed, a village resident, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We are not demanding the impossible; all we want is to be treated like human beings."
Ironically, Al-Tahseen in English means improvement yet its residents say they are protesting at the lack of services and utilities, demanding, for example, just a paved road linking them to other villages and hamlets.
Last week, the residents who are protesting staged a sit-in holding banners that read, "Civil disobedience is the solution" and "Before the revolution, we were oppressed and after the revolution we are forgotten".
While declaring their independence from the governorate, however, the residents of the Nile Delta village insisted they will be directly affiliated to the sovereignty of the president and the Armed Forces.
"When we started our civil disobedience, we told provincial officials that we will no longer deal with them and will stop paying our bills until they solve our problems," Mustafa Salah, a lawyer and a resident of Al-Tahseen who has been delegated to negotiate on behalf of the village, told the Weekly.
With no medical services, mosques, government offices or education beyond the primary grades, residents must trek back and forth to Beni Ebeid, a small neighbouring town two kilometres away, for work and errands, and children must make the return journey daily for school on foot.
"We built the village from scratch in the 1960s, derived from a self-sufficient system we concocted ourselves," said Ibrahim Abdel-Hadi, 65, noting that whenever a service is needed, residents of the village (whose number is estimated at around 3,000) hold a general meeting to decide on the amount of the needed money to be collected from each family. Those who can't afford paying in cash usually provide commodities, Abdel-Hadi added.
"The village's only mosque was closed five years ago because it was in danger of collapse and likewise the old school. Moreover, our nearest medical centre is three kilometres away while the secondary school is seven kilometres away and the preparatory school is four kilometres far from our village," Abdel-Hadi said, attempting to shed light on their suffering. He added that "the village road is our greatest hardship."
Al-Tahseen and Beni Ebeid are separated by a three-kilometre-long, narrow, bumpy dirt road with no lighting, surrounded by fields on one side and a canal on the other.
"Our main demand is that the road leading to the village be paved," Abdel-Hadi stressed.
The unpaved, dusty and dark road has been the scene of rape incidents, cars toppling into the water channel and miscarriages of heavily pregnant women trying to reach the hospital in Beni Ebeid. Moreover, the residents say they are completely locked inside in winter and autumn due to the rains that turn the road into mud and become impassable.
According to a report released by the Organisation of All Egyptians for Human Rights, a non-governmental group, the village suffers frequent power cuts and depends on primitive pumps to get underground, untreated water for drinking.
"Without the road, we are isolated from the world. It is our lifeline," Mohamed El-Sherbini told the Weekly. "Despite the village conditions, we only need a paved road. Besides badly affecting our education, health and work, it also resulted in the death of people."
El-Sherbini said that a man and his wife died after their tractor slipped off the road into the canal owing to the rain. Another resident said that his brother died the same way a year ago.
"Once, in winter, there was a pregnant woman who gave birth in a car while the village residents were pushing it on the muddy road to Beni Ebeid," Mohamed Abdullah said.
Bataa Mahmoud, a mother of a handicapped girl, said: "I went through hell to educate my daughter and get her into the nearest specialised hospital." Bataa works as a hired farmer to raise her daughter. Most of the residents of the village are planters and blacksmiths.
A week ago, the inhabitants sent a letter to President Mohamed Mursi in which they wrote:
"From the residents of Al-Tahseen village to the president of the republic: We announce that we have seceded administratively from Daqahliya governorate and its oppressive rulers. We emphasise that we abide by the laws of the Egyptian state and fall under the authority of its police, army and presidency.
"We do not know if the president of post-revolution Egypt will respond to a letter from the citizens of his state or not. Mr President, we are addressing you after we have exploited all venues and lost all hope in officials who have forgotten that they are responsible for us before God, the nation and the political leadership," the letter said.
"We are 3,000 citizens, and a just a glance at our situation would make you feel that we are altogether left out," the letter added. "You will see the oppression, corruption, poverty, persecution, illiteracy, disease and misery that we suffer. Mr President, we are strangers in our own country."
Daqahliya Governor Salah Al-Madawi told the Weekly that he met a delegation of the villagers on Sunday and agreed with their demands including the pavement of the road.
"It was decided in the current LE200,000 budget for the governorate to pave 700 metres of the road, but after the escalation of the village's inhabitants we agreed to increase the amount to LE1 million and pave the whole road," Al-Madawi said.
"The village is not forgotten, but it's a matter of funds. We have 2,052 hamlets like Al-Tahseen in the governorate and 500 villages. Most of them have demands and it takes time to respond to them all.
"The technical and administrative works will begin next week in the Al-Tahseen road which is 2.7 kilometres and costs LE3.5 million. In its first phase we allocated LE1 million for it," the governor of Daqahliya, which has six million residents, told the Weekly.
"As for medical services, there are three health centres surrounding the village one to two kilometres away. Regarding the closed mosque, it will be repaired next year."
But Salah, the negotiator of the village, denied reaching any agreement with the governor.
"We didn't reach an agreement. He refused to give a written commitment from the governorate to allocate LE3.5 million necessary to pave the road in this year and next year's budgets," the incensed villager said. "If he announced there will be a sum of LE3.5 million, why did the governor officially state only LE1 million?"
"We will not believe in promises again as there is no trust anymore. We were promised many times regarding paving the road and nothing happened. We will continue our hunger strike till he agrees to draw up a timetable for the roadbed stages and we will agree on it even if it takes three years."
Dozens of Egyptian villages may be as ill-fated as Al-Tahseen. The difference is that this village is the first to announce a campaign of civil disobedience and others may follow suit if officials do not genuinely improve their inhabitants' quality of life.