There is one thing that voters and candidates would immediately agree on in Sohag: services and job opportunities are the top priorities for this Upper Egypt governorate deemed by its inhabitants as one of the “forgotten” parts of Egypt.
“I sometimes wonder if those in the government remember that there is a governorate called Sohag when they do theirplanning,”said Hassan,a factory worker. He sadly adds:“I don’t think they do,because there is not much here that shows government attention.”
Hassan along with Mohamed, a hotel housekeeping worker, complainsabout the lack of rewarding jobs. “I have a university degree and I housekeep in this hotel because I cannot find any other job.”
Hassan and Mohamed also complain about poor services in Sohag, especially in villages away from the city centre: no sewagesystem, poor electricityprovision, poor public transport and run-down schools and medical care units.
“We are on the margin of life here,” stated Hassan. But in prospects for change, Hassan and Mohamed are not counting on the government or parliament.
In a speech at a top leadership meeting of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), President Hosni Mubarak, in his capacity as party leader, promised that the NDP would dedicate considerable attention to the demands and concerns of “the poor and marginalised” in “all of the country’s governorates”.
“The government cares only about Cairo, Alexandria, Aswan, the big cities. But we are not included in the calculations,” Mohamed stated. He added that his concerns and hopes are not either on the agenda of parliamentarians —former or prospective ones. “Those parliamentarians, they care only for their interests; they want to get elected to have [legal] immunity, not to serve,” he added.
Neither Hassan nor Mohamed are planning to vote in the legislative elections on 28 November. Nor do they care to attend meetings that candidates arrange to lobby support. “I don’t care for the can of Coke they would serve me, or for the LE100 they would give me to vote. I want to leave Sohag,” said Mohamed.
And while Mohamed would be happy to leave Sohag to nearby Hurghada, a Red Sea resort with many five-star hotels, Hassan is eying Italy. “Leaving Egypt is my dream; I pray for God to get me out of here.”
NDP member Nouredine Abou-Steit —who was not selected by the ruling party to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections — voices sympathy for the concerns and demands of Hassan and Mohamed.
“It is true that President Mubarak is trying to give more attention to Upper Egypt, and it is true that we now have a new airport in Sohag that has helped the economy of the governorate, but it is also true that Sohag has a long way to go before it becomes equal not to Cairo, but even to Luxor,” he said.
An effective industrial zone, better roads (not just within the governorate but also to link Sohag with other governorates), a better share of tourism and better schools and hospitals is the list of priorities for the people of Sohag. “Of course, we hear promises that all of this and much more will be done in the next five years (in the coming parliamentary term), but we heard the same promises in 2005 and I went and I voted, and what did we get —nothing,” stated Hassan.
And regarding political rights? Mohamed smiles with irony. “What difference will it make for me if it is Hosni Mubarak or Gamal Mubarak or anyone else who runs Egypt? Can you tell me?”
Mohamed is not familiar with —and doesn’t much care about — the debate about Article 76 of the constitution that political rights activists qualify as limiting the rights of independents to run for the presidency. Neither is he aware of debate around Article 77 that gives the president an open-ended right to rule. Further, Mohamed El-Baradei is not a name that rings bells for Mohamed.
What matters for Mohamed is to find a contact that could get him a job in Hurghada. “Even if it’s still housekeeping, it would not be less than LE1000 a month,” he said.