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In Egypt, A Village Fights For More Than Just A Soccer Field

Soccer field near Luxor
Soccer field near Luxor
Yasmine Laveille

LUXOR — It's hot in the minibus that takes us to a village about 10 kilometers from Luxor's city center. We ask the driver to drop us off at the house of Hajj Tarek* on the main street. Dotted with farmland, sugar cane and modest concrete houses, the village looks like many other Upper Egyptian rural areas.

It's twilight on a beautiful March day in 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 entrepreneur and leading village figure, 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.

Residents have been struggling with authorities because the village has only one youth center for approximately 35,000 inhabitants. In the 1990s, several residents began to use a vacant piece of state land as a soccer field. They had plans to build a youth center, but they were stopped because of 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 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 the price is too high. Because the two state bodies failed 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 annual rent of 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,300) paid to the Ministry of Endowments — a considerable sum for the villagers.

Then came the Arab Spring

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 southern 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 hotel employees, drivers, tourist guides and small merchants, have lost their livelihoods. In addition, the Upper Egyptian countryside has been hit hard by the deterioration of public services. These include recurrent electricity cuts, water and fuel shortages, and thousands of people dying each year from widespread diseases, including hepatitis C and renal failure, the result of pollution and poor health care.

This is the direct result of Cairo's years of neglect and disregard for other areas. 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 Jan. 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 soccer field. Khaled*, a 41-year-old government-employed technician, believes the revolution "opened a door." Residents first bombarded with petitions a long list of state and city administrative entities involved in the issue.

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, decided with two of his friends to organize a sit-in outside the governorate building in Luxor. They demanded the right to legally use the soccer field.

Criminalizing protest

The protests didn't 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 green space. 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. But they have so far been unsuccessful. Worse, they have been subject to several intimidation attempts and indirect threats, while their leaders have been threatened with lawsuits for illegally occupying land.

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Photo: Kristina

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," a local parliamentary candidate says. "What's the problem? Routine and administrative corruption." Excessive red tape and bureaucracy has remained pervasive despite the 2011 revolution, the candidate says.

Since June 30, 2013, prospects to solve this issue have appeared more distant than ever. The current president doesn't seem any more interested than his predecessors in reforming failing state institutions and tackling the red tape. But despite obstacles, residents express their determination to continue the fight.

"It's a matter of life or death," Khaled explains.

Southern Egypt being ignored

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's better to provide the youth with a space to gather and practice sports rather than leave them to spend the entire day being idle, 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.

According to Khaled, Upper Egyptians have suffered since the end of Gamal Abdel Nasser"s era, when the region was disregarded. He complains that no major development project has 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: There is no work, no jobs, no tourism, and 90% 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 2011, 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 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 the privacy of residents.

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