Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Crisis in Upper Egypt

Successive governments have long neglected the Saeed, the Arabic term for Upper Egypt, but a tipping point may be coming, writes Abul-Abbas Mohamed

Upper Egypt
Upper Egypt
Al-Ahram Weekly

‘Poverty is the worst form of violence’
— Mahatma Gandhi

Nearly one-third of Egypt’s population lives in Upper Egypt, the region known in Arabic as the Saeed. The Upper Egyptians, or Saeedis, are often depicted in novels and films as being tough and conservative, hot-headed about questions of honour and liable to descend into life-long vendettas. However, the story of the Saeed in real life is less glamorous, since Upper Egypt has long been neglected by successive governments, and it still lacks decent transportation and healthcare and education services. It has been under-represented in parliament and sidelined in the corridors of power.
The Saeedis have had enough grievances to spark not just one revolution or two, but many. And yet the two revolutions that Egypt has experienced in recent years have so far done little to improve their lot. In fact, conditions in the Saeed have deteriorated during the country’s turbulent years of transition. If the Saeed started out on the transitional period in an optimistic mood, this has now given way to disenchantment or even desolation. The region has suffered from gun-running and drug-smuggling, and today some feel it has little to look forward to and much to gripe about.
Whenever the Saeed makes the headlines, it is mostly because of a tribal feud or a sectarian clash in the region. The occasional vendetta is never too far from the headlines, either, and stories of frequent man-made disasters are often flashed onto our screens. Ferryboats sinking, trains crashing, or any number of other misfortunes never fail to make the news. Yet, these misfortunes, though important, should not be allowed to distract attention from the permanent grievances of the Saeedis and their real concerns. Their need to be more involved in decision-making and their desire to have a voice on the national scene have not so far grabbed the public’s attention.
Apart from being a catchy theme for Ramadan soap operas, or a local version of the Wild West, the Saeed has not caught the imagination of Egypt’s writers either, and it has not gained the attention of the country’s often quarrelling politicians. The “highlands” of the country are low on the national agenda, and this despite the fact that the inhabitants of the Saeed, the present writer included, had hoped that the 25 January Revolution in 2011 would be the start of change. The long-awaited plans for jobs and healthcare and education were now just around the corner, or so we hoped.
But now we know better. The slogan of “bread, freedom and social justice” that sparked the revolution, ending an intransigent 30-year-old regime, seems not to have been powerful enough to change our lot. Moreover, following the 25 January and the later 30 June revolutions, things got even worse.

TEN QUESTIONS: On 9 November 2010, just weeks before the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution, Al-Ahram ran a special supplement on the Saeed. In it, the prominent social activist and essayist Gamal Asaad posed ten questions to the then prime minister Ahmed Nazif focussing on what the government should do, but wasn’t doing, in Upper Egypt.
Asaad brought up questions of the inadequate healthcare and education, the negligence of agriculture, the deteriorating living conditions, the lack of investment, the poor roads, and the mismanagement, corruption, smuggling, and sectarian strife that have all plagued Upper Egypt.
Going back over his ten questions today, it is sad to note that Asaad’s article could be republished now with exactly the same grievances undiminished. If anything, the list of grievances has got even longer, with problems such as drugs and arms trafficking and sectarian strife getting worse, not better.
In 2010, the government responded to Asaad’s article by sending a list of the projects that it said were in store for the neglected region. Weeks later, this same government was gone, and the projects must have been gathering dust in the archives of the several interim governments that the country has seen since then.  
Nevertheless, Saeedis have held onto the promise of “bread, freedom and social justice” that the revolution of three years ago was all about. We have held onto the dream that, with a new mindset in government, things can improve for the forgotten inhabitants of Upper Egypt.
Every government that has run this country over recent decades has been aware that the Saeed lacked health care services, jobs, good roads, reliable railways, functioning ferries, and decent public transportation. And every government made promises to remedy these things, few of which came true. Like a seasonal tide, a wave of media and government attention hits the Saeed every year or so, and this tide brings officials and businessmen to the region, their briefcases full of drawings of mega-projects.
But neither the mega-projects, nor the many smaller ones that urgently need to be attended to, have ever come true. When the dust of the media has settled, the same drab reality reveals itself once again.
The Minya-based Justice and Development Organisation for Human Rights (JDOHR) has done extensive research about the Sa’eed, and it is now warning that things have reached the point of explosion. Unless something is done to improve the lot of the Saeedis, their discontent may prove detrimental to the social and political stability of the country as a whole, experts say.
The writing is already on the wall. According to a report by the World Bank, the governorate of Sohag is the poorest in the country. Another Upper Egyptian governorate, Assiut, is number one for vendetta crimes, these having escalated after the revolution.
Fathi Qenawi, chief of the crime detection unit at the National Centre for Criminal and Social Research, said that cases of vendettas rose after the revolution because of the lack of policing in the region, which has encouraged people to take the law into their own hands. Arms-trading is now rife in Assiut and Qena, as a result of the absence of law and order.
Tales are being told of people buying and selling anti-aircraft guns, mortars, and Kalashnikovs in the villages of the Saeed.
In a region devoid of basic necessities, but endowed with many grievances, weapons are not in short supply, and nor is sectarian prejudice. In Minya, tales are told of villages being burned down, Copts being attacked, women abducted, and worse. Even Aswan, a place once thought to be the epitome of calm, has joined the parade of violence and sectarianism.
Tales are told across the Saeed of Christian girls being abducted, youngsters turning to drugs, and others dabbling in crime.
A friend from the village of Abu Shusha near Qena recently told the present writer that drug-dealing now takes place openly in the area, with the dealers being accompanied by bodyguards for protection. According to Sayed Awad, a professor of sociology at the Ganoub Al-Wadi University, crime is now getting out of hand in various parts of the Saeed.

ISLAMIST SECESSIONISM: Hoping to capitalise on the grievances of Upper Egypt, the Islamists are trying to rouse demands for secessionism in the region.
A flyer entitled “Secession for Upper Egypt” calling for the establishment of an Upper Egypt Republic, was recently distributed in various towns of the Saeed. The flyer, also posted on Facebook, argues that secession is the only answer to successive Egyptian governments’ endemic neglect of the resource-rich but underdeveloped Saeed. If it gains independence, the flyer promises, the Saeed will be free to develop its resources, create jobs, and export its trademark commodities, such as sugar and aluminium.
The calls for secession are far-fetched for now, but unless the Saeedi’s grievances are seriously addressed, it will be hard to dismiss them. Under pressure from self-proclaimed groups of Saeedi activists, the Committee of Fifty, which has just written the draft of the country’s new constitution, made it incumbent on the country’s next government to bring development to the Saeed and Sinai and to resettle the Nubians in their original homeland.
Saeedi activists have organised a campaign called “No to the Marginalisation of the Saeed” to press the government into paying more attention to the region. They have called, among other things, for the formation of a special council for the development of the Saeed and a permanent committee to supervise government projects and make sure that promises made in the capital are not then shelved in the dusty drawers of the over-extended government bureaucracy further south.

 The Saeed-Red Sea road

BUILDING a road from the Saeed to the Red Sea was one of the much-vaunted projects of the Ahmed Nazif government before the 25 January Revolution. The road, when completed, would shorten the seven-hour trip from Assiut to Safaga to under three hours, or so experts claimed.
But the road has been only half built. Its first stage was inaugurated to much fanfare a few years ago, and some of those who worked on it are aware not just of the immense expense that the road has cost, but also of the fact that nearly 40 workers died during the arduous task of blowing up the rock to clear the way for the asphalt surface.
Work on the 412km road linking Assiut, Sohag and Qena on the Nile with Safaga on the Red Sea was discontinued once the Nazif government was overthrown. The man pushing for the project, former minister of investment Mahmoud Mohieddin, has since left the country. No one else has stepped in to promote this mega-project.
A year ago, the Hesham Kandil government suddenly dusted off the project, taking it from the hands of the National Company for Construction and Development (NCCD) and giving it to the ministry of transport. Things could have changed at this time, but this too was not to be.
Safwan Al-Salmi, chairman of the NCCD, has been disappointed over the waste of money and effort involved. The first phase of the project, he said, would be useless unless the second phase was completed. Moreover, the surface of the current road is porous, which means that it will deteriorate quickly if not continued, wasting the LE1.6 billion spent on phase one.
If completed, the road will open new horizons for investment in the quarries in the eastern plateau area, Al-Salmi said. It will need a further LE400 million in investment in order to finish it. Al-Salmi has called upon the country’s new government to resume the building of the road. Its mere completion will be beneficial to the 900 construction firms and 39,000 workers whose jobs are now at stake, he says.

Religion and clan

FOLLOWING the 25 January Revolution, the rise of political Islam in Egypt brought about a retreat in the influence of clan politics in the Saeed. The once invincible power of the tribes in the region ebbed before the expansion of the Salafist groups that infiltrated many of the clans and recruited relentlessly among their younger and older members.
Clans are jealous of their power and are generally oblivious to the nature of the ruling regime. If the clan has members in positions of power, then the ideology of that power doesn’t matter much to it. As a result, most Saeedi clans cooperated without much ado with what seemed to be a powerful Islamist regime in the making.
For many, the 25 January Revolution, seemed at least temporarily to be a triumph of religion over clan politics. However, this perception ended with the 30 June Revolution, when the clans saw the Islamists booted out of power to be replaced by a new regime that is still in the making.
Immediately, the Saeedi clans reclaimed their former power. Since most of the country’s civil parties have only a minimal presence in the Saeed, the clans are now rethinking who they intend to support in future elections, basing their decisions on traditional power politics rather than the ideological ideas underlying any particular political current.  
The clans have now reorganised their ranks to offset the weakness of the political parties, and if elections are held by individual candidates rather than by party lists they will have little problem in reasserting their influence. The recent formation of the Arab Tribes Shura Council, with representatives from 20 governorates on board, only seems to reinforce this trend.

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