" Saving identity and history - No to dividing the Red Sea" (Photo: Al-Ahram)
For the fourth day in row, school pupils boycotted public schools and shop owners shut their businesses in the cities of Al-Qusair and Ras Gharib in the Red Sea governorate, in an escalation of protests against the government's plan to redraw the governorate's administrative borders.
Al-Qusair and Ras Gharib are the largest cities in the governorate, which is located several hundred kilometres south of Cairo and hosts a number of key tourist destinations, including the resort town of Hurghada.
According to an Ahram correspondent in the governorate, school absence rates reached 90 percent in the cities, and schoolchildren instead joined angry citizens and local government employees at rallies and protests on a daily basis for the last three days.
Locals are angry at the government's decision to split their governorate into four districts, three of which will join three different governorates in Upper Egypt.
"According to the proposed new redrawing of the governorates' administrative borders, Ras Gharib city will be part of Minya governorate, Marsa Alam will be part of Luxor governorate, and the Halaib triangle along with Shalateen will be part of Aswan governorate," Mohamed El-Raafei , one of the leading figures in the "No To Splitting up the Red Sea Governorate" campaign told Ahram Online.
The current Red Sea governorate will be downsized to 8 percent of its current size under the government's plans, which will also see the total number of governorates increased from 27 to 30.
The public campaign was launched by citizens in the governorate as soon as the proposed redrawing of the map was announced in August by the government. According to the plan, all governorates in Egypt will have access to a sea port as well to the desert.
The plan was first announced by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi during his presidential campaign last spring. After his election, the government adopted the proposal and announced it would draft a law to redraw the governorates’ borders. The law is expected to be issued soon.
The government argues that the changes will increase economic development opportunities by giving Upper Egyptian governorates like Minya a sea port.
"This talk is unrealistic," El-Raafei argues. “First of all, look at the geography of the Red Sea shoreline; it is either a series of mountains or touristic resorts, all the way to our southern borders,” he said.
Among the other objections raised is the fear of administrative problems, whether for residents or for businesses.
“Now citizens may drive hundreds of miles each day from Ras Gharib to the city of Minya on a daily basis to complete government paperwork. Oil companies throughout the Red Sea will have to deal with different governorates instead of a single one,” El-Raafei said.
El-Raafei also argues that the government should give details about the planned mechanisms to bring about economic development after the changes are made.
Angry locals in Red Sea cities have suggested that the plans are unconstitutional, according to Articles 242 and 175 in the 2014 constitution.
Article 242 states that Egypt’s existing system of municipal administration shall continue to be in force until the new system stipulated in the constitution is gradually implemented within five years of the date of entry into force of the constitution.
Article 175 states that when the state establishes or abolishes local units or amending their boundaries, economic and social conditions shall be taken into account.
El-Raafei says that escalating to civil disobedience in the two cities is a message to the government.
The campaign organisers are at pains to declare themselves free of partisan politics. They insist that they are not supported by any particular party or movement, and have declared that they will suspend all activites on Friday when a Salafist group opposed to the government has called for a countrywide "Islamic revolution."
Ahram Online was unable to reach the office of the governor of the Red Sea for comment.