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OPINION: Sisi’s Rural Development is a War on Religious Extremism

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by Dalia Ziada

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Muslim Brotherhood managed to gain political victory in parliament by playing on the religious piety of the poor and illiterate citizens in rural areas…

The Egyptian people are widely celebrating Egypt’s restoration of its regional status, after the recent successful mediation for ceasefire between Tel Aviv and Hamas, and President El-Sisi’s pledge to reconstruct Gaza. Meanwhile, the Egyptian state has been gearing up for an equally challenging mission, but on the domestic level. This mission is about renovating the rural areas and improving life conditions for citizens living in rural cities, which represent more than 80% of the inhabited Egyptian geographic area. This important project is expected to enhance Egypt’s overall political and economic structure. But, most importantly it will undermine the social and economic gaps, through which radicalism, religious extremism, and political Islamism has leaked into the Egyptian society.

Earlier this week, the Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and the Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, discussed the workflow of the rural development project. El-Sisi directed the Prime Minister to “harness all of the country’s resources and spare no effort to render such a project a success”. The project targets a total of 4,584 villages, with an estimated budget of 700 billion Egyptian Pounds (about 45 billion US dollars), to be invested in upgrading the infrastructure of water, gas, and power supplies, in addition to building underground sewage networks and improving road services.

If you have ever visited Egypt, you know that there is a gap in economic and social development between urban and rural cities. The situation is even worse in distant and small villages in Upper Egypt, where citizens, for decades, have been suffering from poverty, illiteracy, and lack of basic governmental services.

Since the time of Muhammad Ali Pasha monarchy (1805 – 1953), most of the government-led social and economic development projects had been focused in the capital city, Cairo, and the Mediterranean coastal city, Alexandria. During this era, Cairo was labeled as the hub for arts and culture in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. European people used to flee their war- torn countries and migrate to live in the peace and glamour of Cairo and Alexandria.

In a shocking contrast to this, the Egyptians living in rural areas were declined their basic rights to live as equal citizens, with equal access to education and opportunities. They were mostly treated like slaves serving in the farms owned by the wealthy feudal lords, who were politically close to the monarchy. This huge gap between Cairo and the other rural governorates, in the regions of Delta and Upper Egypt, enabled the appearance of radical political Islamist organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which started its mission in the eastern city of Ismailia and slowly moved to other rural cities in the Delta until it became strong enough to challenge and threaten the lives of the ruling political elite in secular Cairo.

After, the Free Officers Revolution, in 1952, which ended the monarchy and established Egypt as an independent Arab republic, the situation of rural citizens changed a lot. The then President Gamal Abdel Nasser, with a communist mindset, built his legacy around empowering the poor citizens, especially the farmers living in rural areas. Actually, he took the farms of the feudal lords and gave it to the farmers who had been serving in them, under the monarchy.

Despite the euphoria this move created among the poor, at the beginning of his era, Nasser failed to provide the appropriate citizen education and infrastructure development that could have had empowered the farmers to benefit from their newly acquired farming wealth. As a result, many of those farmers sold their pieces of land for houses construction contractors, and then moved with the money to live in Cairo.

During Sadat and Mubarak era, which extended for about four decades, the rural cities became in a worse condition. Most of the governmental infrastructure and development projects focused on Cairo. Meanwhile, most of the farmers went on selling the farms given to them by Nasser and most of the youth in rural cities sought after illegal immigration to Europe via the Mediterranean. This created a huge and dangerous gap, through which radical Islamists intervened to radicalize the poor and illiterate citizens and recruit the youth suffering poverty, lack of education, and unemployment in villages far from the capital city.

In the 1990s, violent Islamist organizations, like Al-jamaa Al-Islamiya (The Islamic Group), established an empire of its own among the poor villages of Upper Egypt. Towards the end of Mubarak era, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to gain political victory in parliament by playing on the religious piety of the poor and illiterate citizens in rural areas, and also by providing them with basic health and food services that the government failed to provide, at that time.

In light of this history, El-Sisi’s national project for developing the infrastructure and citizen well-being in rural cities, derives its importance. The success of this massive project is expected to bring a lot of benefits to the economic well-being of Egypt, on the long-term. It will rebalance the demographic distribution between the urban and rural cities. Less people will desire to leave their rural cities and internally migrate to Cairo or internationally migrate to Europe, searching for better life conditions and work opportunities.

However, the most important, yet undeclared, outcome of this important national project is to fight against the religious extremists and terrorist organizations, who found a fertile soil for their radical ideology among the needs and despairs of the young people living in those less-developed and under-constructed rural villages. This simply means a more secure future for Egypt, if not for the whole Middle East and the Mediterranean regions.

Piece first published in Sada El Bilad.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Milli Chronicle’s point-of-view.

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