The battle for Upper Egypt

Lauren E. Bohn writes: Assiut feels far away from the famed epicenter of Tahrir Square. The oft-neglected peripheral region of Upper Egypt (the cultivated valley of the Nile from Cairo in the north to Aswan, 535 miles south) has been plagued by institutional apathy for years, long dismissed as a dead-end, from where one travels to the capital for work and never returns. When Egypt’s contentious de-facto leaders, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), speak of a silent but loyal majority, or “liberals,” fret about the backward religious and violence-prone rural areas, they have cities like Assiut in mind. But the reality is far more complicated. Assiut and Tahrir are bound together by personal connections and shared concerns — inextricable ties that suggest a far more nuanced emerging Egypt than is generally felt from the central nerve of Cairo.

The new Assiut, which prides itself on being the capital of Upper Egypt, features a distinct pastiche of Salafis, felool, or remnants (a word used to describe holdovers from the Mubarak era), the popular Muslim Brotherhood, a smattering of activists, and a vaguely Egyptian brand of tribalism. Officials from the Mubarak era still cling to power, while Tahrir’s activists find few points of entry into a skeptical environment. Outside the city’s few main streets, Assiut’s mustard-hazed landscape is home to 3.5 million people spread throughout some 1,000 villages. With 24 parliamentary seats, it was a major target, and now bellwether, in the new electoral competition reshaping Egyptian politics.

Though some activists will tell you they had their own “Tahrir Square” in Assiut, by and large, the countryside remained marginally engaged with the uprisings that took Cairo by hold. Protestors continue to call for a prompt end to military rule, blaming SCAF for their inept, and even malevolent, handling of Egypt’s transition to democracy. But, it is easy to find indifference or even hostility to ongoing protests in places where most people get their news from a largely pro-SCAF state television and almost nobody has access to follow revolutionaries on Twitter. Ayad Hamza, 46, a barber in the small village of Ezbet El Geish dismisses Tahrir as a farce. “These kids are stupid. They have nothing else to do but cause trouble,” he said, mopping his cracked floor. “It’s not a revolution they’re making, but a nightmare.” This is the kind of sentiment SCAF has been banking on — one they say resonates in Egypt. But it misses important linkages between the periphery and the political battles waged in Cairo, and naively exaggerates their indifference.

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