While Cairo and centres like Alexandria were the heartbeats of the Egyptian revolution, the country’s most populous region, Upper Egypt, has been something of a passive spectator, little influenced by the political tumult.
Ehab Kotb, from IWPR’s Middle East programme, looks at why addressing the needs of those in outlying areas is essential for the future of the country.
How does Upper Egypt compare with the rest of the country?
Upper Egypt, which forms more than two-thirds of the country, is quite different from Cairo and northern Egypt. It is historically disadvantaged; there are fewer job opportunities; a weaker health service; poor education and even worse transport links. People are not as ambitious as they are in the capital because they are busy with more basic economic and security needs. There are a lot of gangs in the streets and rising crime; it is unsafe to walk after dark in certain areas. They have a joke that the police are for “decoration” only. The state of the security situation, which is perceived as poor in Cairo, is even worse in Upper Egypt and has really affected public opinion there.
What do people feel about the revolution?
If you talk to people in these areas, you discover they are really scared about the situation. They think that any change brought by the revolution is only superficial. Although they are not pro-Mubarak, they are not happy with what the revolution has delivered so far.
There were hopes there that after the revolution this would begin to change, but there is no sign of that. If anything, the situation is even worse, with unemployment very high and security deteriorating. There is little attention paid to this in the Egyptian media, let alone in the international media.
In the wake of the overthrow of Mubarak, there has been some worrying sectarian violence against Egyptian Christians. There has also been industrial action, with a sit-in in Egypt’s largest aluminium factory in Nag Hamadi over low wages, and strikes by railway workers.
What practical measures are needed to improve the situation in Upper Egypt?
There are a lot of natural resources in Upper Egypt and more mining and other industry is possible there. We need a new government policy to encourage building programmes; to improve public services and infrastructure. For instance, the expansion of small- to medium-sized businesses in Upper Egypt could reduce unemployment. Also Upper Egypt is rich in historical sites, not just Luxor and Aswan, so there could be real development of tourism too. We need to look at tourism as an industry in and of itself. Above all, attitudes need to change towards Upper Egypt, and the government must look at the big picture and develop a proper vision for the future.
What kind of political scene is emerging in Upper Egypt?
Although new political parties are emerging in Cairo, the same old faces and figures are still present in the governorates. They have the same mentality and little vision for the future. But there is also more civil society activity coming to the fore, slowly. It is not yet well coordinated, and communities are separated physically from each other by the great distances and poor transport links - but this movement is growing.
It is not clear yet who will win most politically in this region. I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood will gain ground, because whereas in the past they would go to poorer areas to provide services, now they will be expected to provide proper nationwide programmes. So far, they have not managed to do this. But other, newer parties are not effective yet in Upper Egypt. They are busy establishing themselves and organising the elections, so while they are not ignoring Upper Egypt they are simply unable to reach this constituency as they don’t have the resources or capacity.
But it will be very difficult if the people of Upper Egypt are not brought out to vote because then they will have no involvement in political life and no investment in it. It is important for the whole country that Upper Egypt engages positively in change rather that passively responding to change dictated by Cairo.