Villagers demand a football field

It is hot in the microbus that takes me and a local activist to a village located about 10 kilometres from Luxor’s city centre. We ask the driver to drop us off at the house of Hajj Tarek*, on the main street. Dotted with farmland, sugarcane farms and modest concrete houses, the village looks like many other Upper Egyptian rural areas. It is the twilight of a beautiful day in March 2015. We enter the headquarters of a local family association situated in a small room with a few seats, a dusty shelf, an old Dell computer and a large desk. While drinking tea, Hajj Tarek, a 39-year-old local entrepreneur and leading figure in the village, introduces us to a group of men in their thirties and forties. They are public sector employees, farmers, shop owners and drivers, who have been involved in a land dispute with local officials for years.

In Hajj Tarek’s village, the residents have been struggling with authorities over a piece of land. The village has only one youth centre for approximately 35,000 inhabitants. In the 1990s, several residents began to use the vacant piece of state land as a football field. They had plans to build a youth centre, but were stopped due to a dispute over the land’s ownership. Around 2010, a local official temporarily seized the land, which officially belongs to the Ministry of Endowments. Consequently, residents embarked on a complex administrative process asking the Ministry of Youth and Sports to buy the land from the Ministry of Endowments. The sale would formalize their use of the land and avoid further attempts to seize it for other purposes. After years of bureaucratic intricacies and several protests organised by the villagers at the governorate headquarters in Luxor, the Ministry of Youth and Sports continues to refuse to purchase the land, under the pretext that its fixed price is too high. Because of two state bodies’ inability to reach a consensus, families came to a temporary arrangement with the authorities, whereby they were allowed (up until 2010) to use the land in exchange for an LE10,000 annual rent paid to the Ministry of Endowments — a considerable sum for the villagers.  

If the 2011 uprising was essentially more noticeable in Cairo and other big cities, it has nevertheless affected the lives of the more distant populations of the south of Egypt. The economies of the Aswan and Luxor governorates have suffered especially from the country’s instability, which drove away millions of tourists. Many of the South’s youth, who were employed in the tourism industry as many hotel employees, drivers, tourist guides, carters, bazar owners and other small merchants, have lose their livelihoods. In addition, the Upper Egyptian countryside has been hit hard by the persistent deterioration of public services. These include recurrent electricity cuts, water and fuel shortages, and thousands who die each year on the roads or from widespread diseases, including hepatitis C and renal failure, the result of pollution and poor healthcare. This is the direct result of years of neglect and disregard by Cairo. Stereotypes of passive, ignorant, conservative Upper Egyptians have led to a widespread belief that the region has remained distant from the political events and changes that have taken place since January 25, 2011. Yet many Upper Egyptians have taken to the streets during and since the uprising.

Residents of the village also saw the revolution as an opportunity to increase pressure on decision-makers and solve the longstanding issue of the football field. For Khaled*, a 41 year-old government employed technician, things were taken for granted in Upper Egypt, but the revolution changed this and “opened a door.” Residents first bombarded different administrative entities involved in the issue with petitions. They addressed the governorate, Luxor City’s General Administration of Youth, the Egyptian Endowments Authority, the Luxor Markaz and Bayadiya City, the presidency of the Council of Ministers and the National Council for Youth. After being denied several requests to meet the governor, Youssef*, a 45 year-old electrician employed in a government body and one of the most active villagers pursuing this issue, decided with two of his friends to organize a sit-in outside the governorate building in Luxor. They demand the right to legally use the football field.

Residents’ protests did not constitute a rebellion against the government. Instead, it was a demand addressed to the “powerful state,” asking it to give them back their right to enjoy the football field. A November 2013 law, which criminalized protests and led to the imprisonment of thousands of activists across Egypt, has deterred villagers from organizing more protests. They have resorted to administrative and legal steps instead, through writing petitions and the like. They have been unsuccessful so far, however. Worse, they have been subject to several intimidation attempts and indirect threats aimed at discouraging them from acting further, while their leaders have been threatened with lawsuits for illegally occupying land.

None of this would have happened if the Ministry of Youth and Sports had agreed to buy the land from the Ministry of Endowments a long time ago. “The two ministries belong to the Arab Republic of Egypt. What’s the problem? […] Routine and administrative corruption”, a local parliamentary candidate recently tells me. Routine is the popular denomination used to refer to excessive red tape and bureaucracy, which has remained pervasive despite the 2011 revolution, according to the candidate.

Since 30 June 2013, prospects to solve this issue have appeared more distant than ever. The current president does not seem any more interested than his predecessors in reforming failing state institutions and tackling the “routine.” However, despite obstacles, residents express their determination to continue the fight.

“It’s a matter of life or death,” Khaled explains.

In the village, residents claim they are fighting for a public service for everyone. Social and educative purposes justify the need for this field: it is better to provide the youth with a space to gather and practice sports, rather than to leave them to spend the entire day at a café in idle unproductive activity, taking drugs, or even falling into violence or terrorism. Beyond practical issues, residents have questioned their perceived marginalization from the rest of Egypt, while reclaiming their rights as Egyptian citizens: “The Sa’id (Upper Egypt) is outside the map,” a resident tells me.

According to Khaled, Upper Egyptians have suffered since the end Gamal Abdel Nasser’s era, when the region was disregarded. He complains that no major development project had been undertaken in the area since the construction of Aswan’s High Dam. While significant construction projects have been recently launched in the Suez Canal region and Greater Cairo, it seems that Upper Egypt and many other remote and poor regions have been once again forgotten. Youssef also blames the authorities’ ignorance of poor people, claiming they have obtained nothing since the 2011 uprising. “The people who live in Cairo don’t feel what [has happened to us] for three years: There is no work, no jobs, no tourism, and 90 percent of people in Luxor work in tourism,” he says. “The coming revolution will be a bread revolt. Only the working class will participate. It will trump January 25 [2011], June 30 [2013], and all the revolutions. No one will be able to control it.”

Denouncing the state’s virtual absence in the South and demanding better provision of public services, Upper Egyptians have nonetheless called for the central political power to perform its traditional duties of protection and (re)distribution of resources. In the long term, issues such as the football field, may further fuel popular discontent.

This is how Youssef imagines it. “We entered the bottle, and we were shut inside. One day, we’ll break it and escape. And on that day, no one will be able to stop us, because we’re suffocating in it.”

*Names have been changed in the article to protect residents’ privacy.

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Yasmine Laveille 
 
 

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