The Rise of the South

January 01, 2012 By Ahmed Maged
Upper Egypt, a region that makes up 70% of the Nile Valley and one-third of the country’s population, had no option but to take a low profile during the January Revolution. A hotbed for poverty, ignorance and diseases, as well as religious extremism, the South has learnt not to dabble in politics due to the long and established presence of state security forces. With the current elections, many southerners are keen to make up for their weak participation in the Tahrir uprising by heading for the balloting polls

Haridi, a cab driver from Luxor, was all set to rush to the streets as the revolution began to heat up on 28 January. However, by the time he and a big crowd of protestors reached the Luxor train station, they had to return peacefully to where they started off. “This was simply because the angry demonstrators were not met with any kind of resistance,” recalls Haridi. “Seeing the crowds moving towards the station, the security forces fled the scene, intimidated as they were by news coming from Cairo about the failure of police to subdue the revolutionaries countrywide,” adds Haridi.

This was in a nutshell the revolution as it unfolded in Luxor, as well as in other governorates in Upper Egypt. As the events peaked in Cairo and Delta, the turmoil indicator dropped gradually as one moved south. Swept away by the revolution tide, the south was also in commotion. However, the bloody clashes, which made headlines in Beni Sueif, 150 km south of Cairo, dwindled to one major confrontation between the police and rebels, who raided the seat of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in Sohag, 700 km to the south.
The re-awakening
That contrast between north and south in the level of political participation has always taken a toll on Egypt’s political life, placing the north in the heart of any fresh political upheavals. But even when this is the case, the south today is emerging as an Islam-focused electoral force with hardly any leanings towards diversity. It is taking confident strides towards a bustling political scene when the north is wavering between traditional and liberal values. With a population of 30 million, Upper Egypt is bound to weigh dramatically in the electoral equation with its steadfast and purpose-built attitude towards politics. Analysts, therefore argue that the power of the south could push the Islamists to the forefront in an unfair electoral competition. In comparison to other beginning and established political parties, the Islamists have over the years made a stronger presence in the south and several provinces in the north.

As the biggest crowd of Egyptian voters are showing up for the first time since the time of the Pharaohs, Egypt has to face a true dilemma: the majority with the least interest and participation in politics are now steering the country’s political track.
When dealing with this dilemma, two essential issues will have to be addressed: Why has the south been pushed to the sidelines over the decades? And could the situation be reversed so that an electoral diversity would be developed to ensure a sound political life in the near future?
Poverty & tribalism
“We can’t change in a few months what has been damaged in decades,” author, journalist and political activist Skina Fouad tells Community Times. “Crimes perpetuated against Upper Egypt, which turned its people into the electoral fuel of corrupt regimes, should be made up for by putting the region on top of any coming government’s priorities,” adds Fouad.

Many of the villagers have flocked to the north in search of jobs and work opportunities. Education has deteriorated in public schools in spite of the presence of several universities. Health, water and electricity services are not available in the bulk of the region. The spread of diseases has broken a record when many in rural areas are still using canals’ polluted waters and living in primitive houses made of mud bricks. Many have access to a kind of media that is not addressing their problems or linking them with the developed north. The effect of a few awareness programs relating to different aspects of life usually vanishes into thin air when the majority is still clinging to tribal traditions. Rampant Islamic extremism has alienated the region both politically and socially after it was targeted by intensive security forces to contain related terrorist activities that endangered tourism in the region.

“But people always forget that we are still being ruled by severe tribal traditions,” remarks Osama El Bana, owner and manager of a tour agency in Luxor, one of two southern governorates that figured in the first phase of the current parliamentary elections. “True, the revolution in the south took a low profile for sundry reasons, but many from every part of Upper Egypt rushed to Tahrir Square to be part of the future-altering events,” he adds. “Also the social scene here is very different; since we are a  small community, we can’t raid the streets and buildings damaging others’ property because everyone knows the other.”

But Mohammed Abdel Dayem, also in the tourism sector, is not surprised at Upper Egypt’s reaction. “Since time immemorial, the north has been the stage of radical political changes. Those who took interest in politics often left for the north to be in center stage. Also, the tribalism marking social life in the south has made it incumbent upon citizens, especially in rural areas, to follow the head of the tribe or the big family’s political leanings. Since those have for long been affiliated with the central government in Cairo, it was difficult for the majority of people to take a decision of their own as the revolution started.”
State terrorism
Tribalism aside, the police forces and state security agents’ omnipresence had always associated politics in this part of the country with the banned Islamic parties. The police usually interfered to break up even the pettiest of fights under the pretext that they could affect tourism. When the revolution started many became afraid to react lest they would get implicated in spoiling tourism. But according to some tour guides, when the developments in Cairo began to send waves of concern to the south, many tourists opted to stay in their hotel rooms while others went zealously to watch what they thought was a political festival.

But Hag Osman, who owns a grocery close to Abu El Hagag Square in Luxor, owes it also to police terrorism. “Home to several Islamic groups, the south has been under tight security, especially after late President Anwar El Sadat was assassinated in 1981,” he says. “We’ve been exposed to severe waves of repression that were not only restricted to arrests and jailing. The violations went as far as raiding homes, raping women before their men and sometimes raping men before their wives,” recalls Osman in a regretful tone.
After the revolution
With the first free elections that followed the revolution, analysts are underlining that tribalism isn’t only the mark of Upper Egypt’s elections but also that of Bedouin surroundings in Sinai and the Western Desert, as well as many provinces in the Delta. “However, in Upper Egypt, those who missed the opportunity to take part in the great events in Tahrir last January are insisting to have their voices heard through voting,” writes journalist Ziyad Bahaa El Din in El Shorouk daily. “As soon as the competition started, placards filled the streets and invitations were sent calling the citizens to attend campaigns and conferences. Because people in Upper Egypt are practical, discussions focused on their needs in matters relating to unemployment, education, food and transportation. Issues like the state’s identity, Islamic Shari’a and the nature of the coming constitution haven’t figured because there is total agreement on them. The southerners, who take pride in their identity and religion, are not diverted by the media reports about such questions.”  

Initial reports about the preparations for the elections in Beni Sueif, Menya, Assuit, Sohag and Aswan point to the strong presence of the Islamic parties side by side with some former members of the dissolved NDP, who have been pushed to the elections by other parties. Tribalism was also in the limelight besides the rivalry exhibited by the Coptic communities that are heading for El Kotla El Masria (the Egyptian Bloc). Human rights observers point out that whatever votes won by the Egyptian Bloc in the first round came as the Copts’ reaction to the progress of Islamic parties.

Also, the ‘candidates- in- lists’- approach has helped contain the clashes that usually erupted during elections between two big families or tribes over the winning of one of their next of kin. This time the candidates belonging to two rivaling families could exist in the same list.

“True this is the picture in Upper Egypt but each of these elements should be detailed,” underlines Dr. Khaled Abu El Wafa from Luxor. “Speaking of tribalism, I have to clarify that it can take different shapes; it is sheer allegiance to family in a place like Qena. It is a kind of religious affiliation in Assiut that is home to many Islamic groups. But while the educated people in Luxor, for example, could vote for someone in the tourism field, still lots of villagers in the environs are heading for the next of kin or get shepherded by the mayor or other influential people to select candidates of the big heads’ choice. However, the educated groups in the cities are parting with this attitude.”

Although the educated people in Upper Egypt could be a minority, they are a new asset that shaped up as a result of free education and awareness campaigns beamed by the media, stated Bahaa El Din. “They express the fresh hopes and ambitions of a new middle class that is different from the traditional families. They think Upper Egypt should have its fair share of education and culture and be given the opportunity to invest in small and medium size project.”

“But put that minority aside, it is a fact that a mix of tribalism and Islamists is currently the driving force in Upper Egypt,” remarks journalist Mokhtar Shoeib, who authored several books on terrorism in Egypt. “We’ve all expected the Islamists to cause ripples in the first round of elections in Upper Egypt and elsewhere. Their presence has long been established through several social, business and health organizations, which form a strong link between them and the public. However, we have to underline that tribalism and Islamists have united in pushing that success to the forefront: many candidates belonging to Islamic groups are originally members of big and rooted families in Upper Egypt.”

The state’s responsibility
Yet, Dr. Azza Korayem, the researcher at the Center for Social and Criminal Studies in Cairo, warns that the task should not be left to civil and national organizations. “In Upper Egypt the challenge is much bigger,” she tells Community Times. “Be it Islamic or otherwise, more often civil organizations target their own interests; reform in that wide region should be carried out only by the government. Besides attracting the workforce back to farming, a major plan should prioritize the building of new schools, hospitals and providing employment channels that are based on agricultural economy.”

Also other liberal parties underline that, on their own, Islamic parties can’t take up the challenge. “Yes, only the state and none other than the state can handle it,” refutes Mohammed Sayed Fouad of El Ghad Party. “True the Islamic parties have done a lot of charity works, but the budget needed to develop a region with the size of Upper Egypt can only be provided by the government. Party work is only restricted to drawing up plans, highlighting them in the parliament and putting pressure on the government to press ahead with reform. That will also be the Islamists’ role. However, from day one, they started talking about women’s dress code instead of discussing development programs for Upper Egypt!”

There are several question marks and many stress that it is too early to discuss reform in Upper Egypt when a new constitution and presidential elections are in the making. Upper Egypt has truly been the victim of all regimes. After a glimpse of hope was seen with the reforms introduced by late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, efforts to develop the region were discontinued with the consumerism that marked late El Sadat’s policies and then deposed Mubarak’s fierce global capitalism. Although some highlight the drawbacks of a social makeup based on tribal allegiances and big families, analysts stress that such structure has safeguarded a region that has for long been neglected by the state. Egypt is in a transitional period and the future of Upper Egypt is bound to how things will settle in the north.