A small coffee shop in the coastal Red Sea city of Quseir has become the central office for a growing local campaign against the government’s proposal to repartition Egypt’s governorates.
The proposal was thrown into the public domain as part of a last-minute elections pitch by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The incumbent president introduced the redrawn map of Egypt with the stated purpose of reallocating resources and encouraging development.
Logistical complications – the proposed partition is no small administrative undertaking – as well as popular backlash by residents are believed to have thus far hindered the plan’s progress.
The anticipated parliamentary election and the requisite mapping of electoral districts could also stall the plan’s implementation, according to a recent Aswat Masriya article.
If executed, Sisi’s drastic manipulation of internal borders would see the Red Sea governorate parceled out to eight surrounding Upper Egyptian governorates. The administrative center of Hurghada would remain untouched, while Upper Egypt’s governorates would stretch horizontally from the Western Desert to the Red Sea. The idea is that every governorate should have access to both desert and sea.
The country’s 27 governorates would become 33.
But Red Sea residents insist that Sisi’s proposal would likely have an adverse effect of regional development. While they are worried about the social and economic effects of the plan on their own lives, they argue that there are larger scale implications that would harm the national economy and damage the area’s natural resources.
Campaigners have recently been holding local conferences and collecting petitions from residents of the seaside governorate ahead of an initiative to flood Sisi’s office with telegraphs rejecting the partition plan.
In Quseir, several young men are sat around the coffee shop-turned-campaign headquarters. It’s Friday morning and they’ve been toiling overnight on the anti-partition campaign.
The latest government rumors take a turn: bits of information are exhaustingly probed as the bedraggled campaigners look to uncover the government’s underlying plans. After all, it could all be shelved, some say.
In the midst of the morning’s exchange, the waiter comes over with tea, leaning in to ask one of the young men in charge of Facebook uploads whether the new graffiti design is finished. The waiter is also active in the campaign.
Quseir is a small touristic city south of Hurghada with a population of 50,000 people. If the repartition takes place, Quseir would become part of Qena governorate.
Qena’s size would double in a reconfigured Egypt, according to Local Development Minister Adel Labib. Luxor’s size would grow more to more than ten times its original size.
Speaking to Sada el-Balad’s Mostafa Bakry in August, Labib affirms campaigner’s concerns, saying that resources from areas in richer governorates, which he refers to as ‘vacant spaces,’ would be allocated to poorer ones. Opening up desert to sea routes and vice versa are a key part of the plan.
But the government’s plan to reallocate resources is not perceived by Red Sea residents as a fair one.
“We are a rich governorate, why lump us in with a poor one? What do we get out of it?” school teacher Tomader Mahmoud asks.
Residents believe that the new plan will more likely squander resources than redistribute them.
Local experts are worried that different, uncoordinated strategies, when implemented by the different governorates, could damage the Red Sea’s marine life and deserts, which are both rich in minerals and other natural resources.
Nasr Mohamed Hussein, says that opening up for an influx of people could lead to groups taking over areas and extracting strategic materials outside the official framework, damaging other materials in the process.
“The government will not be able to protect the desert,” he says.
Development can be attained by other means, according to Mohamed Abdu, former mayor of Quseir. Abdu believes that the potential for development inside Quseir is huge and that a better plan is to develop it and create jobs that would be available for the people of Qena, without administrative changes. He says he can’t find understand the logical reasoning behind the government’s plan.
Abdu is convinced that reinvesting in local infrastructure would better serve the community and the government’s ultimate goals. A government-owned phosphate company and harbor that have been closed since the 90s could be reopened, he argues, and factories could be built to make use of the mineral wealth of the city.
The popular campaign has presented an alternative plan, drafted by planning experts, to the Local Development Ministry. The campaign’s proposal is to divide the Red Sea into two governorates and to create a “development district” that joins upper Egypt with the Red Sea in developmental projects, allowing them to remain separate governorates administratively.
But as many locals insist the Red Sea is more than its natural resources, it is a tourist hub and a household name amongst marine enthusiasts the world over. Tourism is one of the governorate’s largest industries and many are concerned that the undertaking will seriously affect their livelihoods.
Hossam al-Shaer, head of the tourism chamber and an investor in several Red Sea cities, had said during a talk in September that the new division will lead to confusion that will discourage investment in tourism, as reported by Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Shaer added that having the area under several different administrations would destroy it, and that creating residential areas to accommodate the new arrivals would also harm tourism.
Investment will also be harmed in other ways, campaigners say, as investors often own projects in more than one city. A repartitioned Red Sea would force them to obtain permits and process other dealings with the state through several different governorates, making the process much more complicated.
Fishermen and herder complain that they will have to obtain several permits from different governorates for their work, which stretches across Red Sea cities.
It isn’t just about investment and economic sectors though, the people of the Red Sea are deeply concerned about their identity: their history, tradition and lifestyle, which could be lost as they become absorbed by Upper Egypt.
“We will be crushed in the crowd,” Mahmoud declares.
“This time it is our roots that are threatened. We can’t stay silent,” she adds. “The government is used to Quseir being a quiet city, but that doesn’t mean we will tolerate injustice.”
The campaign spearheaded by Quseir and Ras Ghareb is a dynamic one that has succeeded in uniting public opinion against the plan.
During the first week of school, Quseir and Abou Ghareb organized successful school strikes, whereby parents were asked to refrain from sending their kids to school in protest. Some students also carried out sit-ins inside their schools and protests in the streets.
Campaign members have also been lobbying in Cairo, gaining the endorsement of several political parties, including Al-Dostour.
The campaign has also met with Labib twice, but those who attended the meeting say he failed to convince them of the proposal’s merits.
“We support the state and we support development,” Abdu says. “But what we are saying is in their best interest, they should listen to us. After all, who knows a place better than its people?”