"All we ask for is a road to tie us to the rest of the world, to connect us to life," explains Ahmed Abdel-Qader, a local blacksmith from the isolated village of Tahsin in Egypt's northern Daqahliya governorate.
The plight to find a path which connects it to the rest of Egypt epitomises dire conditions of some 3000 residents of the village that just over a week ago decided to launch a campaign of civil disobedience and declare independence from the central Nile Delta governorate.
Although Tahsin lies just 40 kilometres from the closest main city in the governorate, Mansoura, reaching the village takes at least an hour and a half, due to the terrible conditions of the road.
Tahsin's residents depend on agriculture, and the marketing of their produce to the outside world, as their main source of income.
The village was founded in the 1960s as part of land reclamation policies initiated by the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
Agricultural communities across Egypt have greatly suffered since the 1970s, largely due to a number of state policies including economic liberalisation, which was exacerbated under president Hosni Mubarak.
Tahsin is no exception.
Dangers of isolation
"The village should be known as 'the Tahsin cemetery'," lamented 50-year-old resident Soheir Hassan, while carrying her eight-month-old child on her shoulder.
The infant was paralysed after not being hospitalised fast enough after contracting a high fever a few months before.
Due to the lack of transport links, Hassan had spent hours trying to navigate the makeshift roads to the hospital to get her daughter the medical assistance she needed. Sadly, Hassan was too late: the damage caused by the illness is now irreversible.
This was not an isolated case – there have been at least five other instances of paralysis in the village for the same reason, Hassan explained. "This is unjust, unjust; may God forgive those responsible for leaving us to decay in this way; the village is in despair," she said.
Agreeing with Hassan, Nadra Abu-Zeida, 60, another member of the community, added that no one had ever heard of Tahsin. "It's only very recently that anyone has paid any attention to us," she said. "For years, we’ve called out, but to no avail."
Cutting her off, a young man interjected: "Yes, you have heard about us, but only in the obituaries."
Lack of basic services
"The road is the key," asserted Ahmed Fahim, a labourer working in the satellite city of New Cairo, on one of his weekly visits to Tahsin.
The issue of the road has long been a central grievance for the villagers. The only way to access the rural community currently is via a long and unpaved path. As the route is surrounded by towering maize fields, in the summer the dust track has consistently been the scene of car accidents, rapes, miscarriages and child mortalities.
An added danger is the smoke from the burning rice fields at the end of the summer agricultural season, making it very hard for residents and visitors to enter or leave the village through the plumes of black smog.
Having a functioning road, Abdel-Qader explained, would provide a safe and quick access point for services, which the village badly needs but does not have.
"We would be able to have ambulances, police, government representatives and visitors come," Abdel-Qader continued. "But unfortunately, like we see in Egyptian movies, the police only show up in the end, after the crisis."
He added that the winter months were especially difficult: "We are usually locked inside the village for days, unable to leave. No one can enter due to the muddy roads," he explained.
Abdel-Qader explained that on Thursday the governor announced that LE1 million had been earmarked for the village in order to build a road. However, Tahsin residents claim it would actually cost around LE20 million.
Nevertheless, the cost is not the issue, the blacksmith continued, but rather the fact that the government has offered no guarantees or official documentation for the road project, nor have they outlined a schedule for construction.
Another key demand has been the construction of a medical unit in the village to provide basic services.
Abu-Zeida explained that the closest health centre was in the larger, neighbouring village of Mubarak, approximately seven kilometres away. However, she continued, most of the time, Tahsin villagers were turned away before they were treated because their names were not registered since they are not residents.
In cases where more advanced care is needed, the nearest hospital is fifteen kilometres away via rudimentary roads.
Apart from a school built recently by the Armed Forces, which was meant to open this year, residents claim that nothing of significance has been done for them in decades.
Even the village mosque, which has repeatedly requested to be officially recognised by Egypt's Religious Endowments Authority, has been neglected. According to Fahim, the building was in such a state of disrepair that it has been closed for five years. "We have resorted to praying outside the mosque next to the ablution area," he said.
"For 30 years, basic services that we are entitled to have not been provided by the start. We have no medical unit, no adequate way to light the village, no functioning sewage system and an inadequate water supply," asserted Abdel-Qader. "Because of this, we decided to take a firm stance by launching a civil disobedience strike."
Civil disobedience & administrative autonomy
Abdel-Meguid, a village elder, explained how the idea for launching a civil disobedience campaign had in fact been brewing since 2008. "At the time, however, we felt it was a great threat and were afraid of the Mubarak regime's notorious Central Security Forces," he asserted.
Several warning messages were sent to the governor in the first week of September, and an official announcement of intent to launch the strike was sent on 9 September. In addition, they also threatened to declare independence from the governorate if their demands were not met.
Abdel-Qader, who participated in last year's popular uprising in Tahrir Square, explained: "We decided together that we would not pay taxes, we would not pay any of the electricity and water bills, and our agricultural yields would not be given to the [state] agricultural cooperatives".
On Thursday, a group of village residents who work in Cairo protested outside the presidential palace. A few days before, several others went to the governor's office, demanding to meet Governor Salah Madawy.
"Governorate employees let us in, made us sit in a room and told us to wait until the governor had finished his meetings; we later realised they had locked us in. They later told us that he had left in an obvious attempt to avoid us," resident Magdi Fayed, 30, explained.
Around the same time that an official warning was sent to the governor, Fayed continued, residents declared a hunger strike at the nearby Bani Ebeid Hospital, where they demanded the right to medical care.
"We were also sent away and told that our fight was with the state authorities and not the hospital staff," explained Fayed.
A legal complaint was presented to Egypt's prosecutor-general on Thursday by their lawyer, Salah Mostafa Ibrahim, accusing Madawy of failing to fulfil his job requirements. According to village residents, Ibrahim was one of the people who spearheaded the protest movement in Tahsin.
Moreover, at least four members also started a separate hunger strike over the weekend. As a result, they were hospitalised on Sunday, suffering from dehydration.
"We can actually say that the governorate abandoned us 30 years ago by not providing us with the services needed," Abdel-Qader stressed. "There is no sanitary drainage system, electricity only reaches half the village and the water that reaches the village is poisoned."
According to Fahim, the water network has not been changed in 20 years, and when the water does reach Tahsin, the motor brings sewage water and hazardous sediments.
Consequently, there has been an increase in Hepatitis C and kidney malfunctions – problems experienced by many Egyptian villages dealing with similar water-related issues.
"For years, since the village’s establishment in the 1960s, we have been forced to depend on ourselves, so this is not necessarily new to us," asserted Fahim.
Abdel-Qader agreed, adding that residents needed to work towards collectively introducing their own water network and motors – in addition to electricity generators – in order to remain self-sufficient.
Ahram Online obtained a video of Sunday's meeting between representatives of Tahsin and Governor Madawy. With no village mayor, or Omda, Tahsin sent a "board of trustees" made up of members of the most prominent families.
"Listen son, am I getting this money out of my own pocket? We don’t have the money," Madawy says on camera, adding that it was illogical to call for independence.
"Would it be reasonable for me as the Daqahliya governor to claim independence from Egypt? What would I be? Part of Israel or America?" the governor added mockingly, brushing off the representatives' demands.
In response, residents are now demanding intervention by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
"We felt so happy that Morsi took power; we finally felt like we had a president who was close to us," Hassan stated.
Village elder Abdel-Meguid added that, at the very least, Morsi should ensure that the governor is removed.
"How is it that we have a democratically-elected president, but a governor that is a remnant of the former Mubarak regime?" he asked.
Morsi may be forced to take action as Tahsin's plight – and the residents' reaction – has inspired other areas to take a stand. El-Loqa village in Egypt's Upper Egyptian Assiut governorate called for independence on Thursday, stating that they would take matters into their own hands as they have done for decades.
"Please Dr. Morsi, please look to us," Hassan implored Egypt's president, holding up her child. "Look to Tahsin, which is being buried alive, you are the one responsible now."