The worldwide hopes for a newly democratic Middle East that were initially created by the Arab Spring have vanished for good. Many of the grievances that sparked the revolutions have hardly been addressed. In 2011, slogans demanding, “bread, freedom, dignity,” accompanied the calls for the downfall of the Egyptian regime. Similar pleas for change swept across the Middle East, but in many cases, the living conditions of average people have actually worsened. Stability is gone for the foreseeable future and several Arab states are struggling to maintain their territorial integrity.
Though the discourse about Egypt’s revolution has centered on Tahrir Square and the highly populated north, there is more to the story that warrants discussion. Histories of the country note that Upper and Lower Egypt, ancient regions that separate the southern and northern Nile, were united under Pharaoh Narmer around the year 3100 BC. Though Egypt’s Pharaohs are long gone, the distinction between Upper and Lower Egypt is still relevant in order to understand the social divisions in the country. The Upper Egyptians – called Saeedis in Arabic – are generally more tribal and traditional than their countrymen from the north. Importantly, poverty in Upper Egypt is endemic; about two-thirds of all poor Egyptians, most of whom subsist from agriculture, live in Upper Egypt. Egypt, although labeled as middle income, is clearly a poor country with more than 40 percent of all inhabitants living below the $2 poverty line. However, Lower Egypt, and particularly the metropolitan areas of Cairo and Alexandria, are less affected by poverty than the tribal south.
During the 1950s and 1960s, populist regimes like that of Nasser’s – himself a Saeedi – enacted land reforms to provide a living to many poor farmers and, equally important, to break the political influence of big landowners. During the last two decades, many rural areas in Egypt have been politically and economically neglected. The pressure for structural adjustment programs with subsequent market liberalizations affected small farmers in particular. In 1997, a new law reversed Nasser-era property laws for farmers to create a more efficient and export-oriented agricultural sector. As a consequence, a significant portion of the arable land became concentrated in the hands of a few, while the number of very small farms increased. Furthermore, high population growth and scarce social mobility due to strong kinship ties exacerbated the situation. Many farmers in Upper Egypt also needed to work in the informal sector to guarantee the survival of their families. The rapidly increasing number of entrants into the informal labor market led to declining wages and increased poverty. When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, food inflation and the lack of social protection led to peaking public discontent.
The 2011 revolution was, unsurprisingly, welcomed by most people of Upper Egypt given that many hoped for a better life and social justice. But today, after three years of political turmoil and polarization, the situation has become increasingly explosive. The stream of tourists that had once provided one of the most important sources of income besides farming has dried out. The lack of economic opportunities increases drug and weapons trading, and has led to an eroding security situation. The continuing marginalization of the area and its people leaves many hopeless and desperate. Some newspapers have recently reported that groups within Upper Egypt called for independence from the rest of the country, wishing to take their destiny into their own hands.Grievances in the region are volatile enough to potentially culminate into a rebellion of militant groups. Thus, the real danger today is less the formal split of Egypt but rather the emergence of a militant rebellion and deteriorating state control over parts of its territory.
Undoubtedly, the Egypt of today is at a crossroad. During all the political turmoil, the poor of Upper Egypt were entirely forgotten. The current government in Cairo acknowledges that the situation is unsustainable. Its recently released development plan, called “Egypt 2022,” focuses in particular on the marginalized rural areas of Upper Egypt. Given the huge budget deficit of more than 10 percent of GDP, the donor community will have a crucial role to play to make the poor in Upper Egypt a priority. Investments in jobs, education, and health services can help alleviate the hardships of many poor Egyptians in this area, and consequently decrease the likelihood of violent conflict.
J. Thomas Gratowski is a second year MA student in International Affairs at the Elliott School, with concentrations in International Economics and Middle East Studies.
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