Middle East

Rural Egypt holds key to political future

Rural area near Luxor
Image caption For decades, Egypt's villages have been ignored by the elite in Cairo

A year ago an uprising began in Cairo that led to the overthrow of Egypt's long time dictator Hosni Mubarak.

It was an uprising led by young, urban, educated Egyptians, angry at corruption and unemployment, and inspired by the revolution in Tunisia.

A year on, Egypt has a new democratically elected parliament. But the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square are barely represented.

Instead, the new parliament is dominated by Islamists.

The biggest surprise has been the success of the Nour party, almost unheard of a year ago, but now with a quarter of the seats.

Nour is the party of the Salafists, hardline Islamists who call for a return to the political and moral practices of the first Muslims, in particular the "righteous ancestors" known as "al-Salaf al-Salih" in Arabic.


A thousand kilometres south of Cairo, al-Tud is a pretty typical Egyptian village - dirty, overcrowded and poor.

Its narrow streets of packed earth are squeezed between high concrete buildings, crammed together in no particular order.

Image caption In rural areas, the views expressed by Somaya and Ahmed al-Tairi are extremely common

For decades, villages like al-Tud have been ignored by the elite in Cairo.

But now it is here in these rural backwaters, not in Tahrir Square, that the future of Egyptian politics is being decided.

Ahmed al-Tairi is the archetype of a Salafist.

He has a luxuriant grey beard, a red chequered keffiyeh and long, flowing robes.

His wife, Somaya, wears the full niqab, a veil for the face that leaves only the area around the eyes clear.

Mr and Mrs Tairi are warm hosts, welcoming me in to their home with obvious delight. Mrs Tairi makes tea chuckling as she does so from behind her veil.

But when it comes to the future of Egypt her husband does not tailor his message to reassure his foreign guest.

"Islam is clear," he tells me. "If someone steals his hand will be cut off, killers will be killed, and adulterers will be stoned to death. In that way the whole country will be made safe".

Corporal punishment

Sitting next to Mr Tairi is the village English teacher Rafaat.

Compared to Mr Tairi, Rafaat is a man of the world. He has studied four years at university, and even taken a three-month course in England.

But his experience of the outside world has not softened his views on Islam.

With twinkling eyes he tells me why Sharia law is so obviously better than what the West has.

"The crime rate in Saudi Arabia is less than the UK," he says.

"What's the difference? Only one thing - the system in Saudi Arabia is that when you steal your hand is cut. But in other places it's different."

"If in this village someone steals something and their hand is cut, do you think someone else will then think about stealing something? I think not."

Uncomfortable questions

Twenty-minutes drive away from al-Tud stand the massive sandstone columns of the Luxor and Karnak temples.

More than 3,000 years old, they were built to worship Egypt's Pharaoh god-kings.

After the Pyramids, this is probably the most popular tourist site in Egypt.

As I wander between the columns a steady trickle of tourists pass me - French, British and Chinese.

Image caption Dr Abdul Dardery failed to reassure German tourists in Luxor

Outside, a group of German tourists has surrounded the newly elected MP for Luxor, Dr Abdul Dardery, a tall, clean-shaven man in a well-cut suit.

Dr Dardery is from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that is the biggest party in the newly-elected lower house of parliament.

"What about the cutting of hands and things like that?" asks one of the Germans. "Will that be in the new constitution?"

Dr Dardery looks uncomfortable and sounds evasive.

"What we care most about is for people to find food," he says.

The German tourist interjects: "That's not answering the question."

"Cutting the hands is not an end in itself," Dr Dardery continues. "It is a severe punishment - the essence is to protect the larger society."

The German tourists nod politely, but they do not look reassured by Dr Dadari's response and neither would Egypt's liberals.

Liberal fears

A hundred metres away from the temple, the sun glints off the River Nile flowing steadily north towards far away Cairo.

On its east bank, cafes filled with comfortable chairs and tables stand empty waiting for tourists.

Since last year's revolution tourists have deserted Egypt. Now the industry must deal with the new power of the Islamists.

I sit down at one of the cafes and open the menu.

The back page is filled with a list of cocktails, beers, wines and spirits. But when I try to order a beer the waiter shakes his head.

"I am sorry," he says, "we no longer serve alcoholic drinks. Since the revolution it is not a good idea. We are afraid of the men with beards."

There are many things the men with beards would like to stop - the young German woman sunbathing topless beside the pool at my Luxor hotel, for example.

In fact, the Salafists would go much further.

Image caption The tourist trade has been slow in Luxor since the revolution

Back in al-Tud, the village English teacher Rafaat has his own prescription for the tens of thousands of Western tourists who visit Egypt's beaches every winter.

"Why not have special beaches for women to enjoy and special beaches for men?" he asks. "If we applied these systems, there will be better life for all."

It may not be what Egypt's liberals and its Western friends want to hear, but out here in Egypt's villages such views are extremely common and now that Egypt is a democracy they can no longer be ignored.