Why did the Egyptian countryside rise up against al-Sisi?

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The Egyptian authorities closed the squares of the governorates and the main streets, fearing angry demonstrations protesting the deteriorating economic conditions. Still, the surprise came from the villages and hamlets, and from the countryside that has remained marginalised for decades. Followers say that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did not understand the rules of the game in the Egyptian countryside until it became a time bomb that now threatens his existence, and pushed him to make concessions.

The demonstrations took place in at least eight governorates, and the common feature between them was that they erupted in many rural areas which were impossible to control at the same time. The demonstrations in these villages came as a response to al-Sisi, who threatened a month ago that the army would go to them to control building violations and demolish citizens’ homes that the government claims are established on state land.

For the first time in decades, a popular movement began in Egypt from rural areas, which have previously been described by many political forces as stable and loyal to the ruling regime. The few exceptions were during the popular movement opposed to the July 2013 coup and were limited to some villages. Before that, the rural areas had a limited presence in the widespread protests in the last years of the ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s era, as the movement was limited to cities.

The political forces and observers at the time attributed that to the Mubarak regime’s consolidation of long-term mutual interest alliances between popular and tribal leaders in villages and hamlets. This happened in exchange for early control of local problems that may cause unrest and help the interior intervene on time before the situation escalates.

But al-Sisi is not like Mubarak. Observers say that he did not understand the rules of the game in the Egyptian countryside, as well as his lack of political expertise and his insistence on the approach of oppression and coercion, which made him neglect entirely to listen to the demands and grievances of many groups. Indeed, according to observers, al-Sisi made himself the first Egyptian president not to visit a real village or rural area. As for the areas he visited, most are semi-rural, “model villages and farms,” designed and made by the army, and they are not connected to the real Egyptian countryside. Al-Sisi adopted policies which further impoverished the countryside.

The farmers were affected most from an increase in the price of services, facilities, and agricultural needs, and decisions to stop the cultivation of many varieties, and to reduce the price of supplying crops, which culminated in the explosion of the construction violations this year. Every village has been established on a volcano, and every hamlet poses a threat to the regime’s stability.

Anger in the countryside was not only because of the demand for payment of violations and holding citizens accountable for the inaction, mismanagement, and corruption of localities before and during al-Sisi, but also because of the decision to stop construction, which had dangerous economic and social repercussions.

Concerning building violations, millions of Egyptians in the countryside found themselves required to pay sums ranging between EGP 10,000 (about $633) and EGP 100,000 (about $6,330) to reconcile with building violations on agricultural lands, linked to homes, stores, and barns that they had established for many years and licenced with approval. This file compounded many of the conflicts that existed for decades between citizens and government agencies, headed by the Endowment Authority.

The Endowment Authority is demanding the expulsion of thousands of residents and threatening to withdraw the licences issued to them, in the villages of Atfih, al-Ayyat, and al-Saff centres in Giza specifically. Also, the spatial surveys of rural areas prove that construction on agricultural lands owned by citizens, and the transfer of many plots of land from agriculture to housing in the last 20 years, took place due to the expansion of urban areas due to farmers leaving their jobs and the decrease in the financial outcome of agricultural properties. Also, the absence of social housing projects for low-income people in rural areas and governorate centres, and their concentration in the new cities.

As for the impact of al-Sisi’s decision to halt construction, it left a black shadow over the villages, specifically those in which brick factories are concentrated. These factories caused unemployment in the villages and low income due to the suspension of construction and the army and government projects’ failure to rely on the production of these factories. Those reasons related to the basic needs of ordinary citizens occupy the forefront of the movement. Still, other issues cannot be ignored, including the neglect of many areas in representing the next House and Senate.