In Egypt, journey down a Nile of discontent
Voices from the 'other Egypt' show why the country is so riven – and what its next leaders face.
Naga Hammadi, Egypt
Essam Elya almost doesn't agree to meet. He calls in the evening, waffling, scared. Then he makes a spontaneous decision – we can meet later, at 10 p.m., at a local church. That is the only place he feels safe.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Trouble Along the Nile
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We sit in a small, dim room off the main hall. Mr. Elya's hands are trembling. As he tells his story, he stares at a spot on the wall, speaking haltingly, as if long sentences are too much effort. Elya is a young pediatrician in Naga Hammadi, a community of farmers and aluminum-plant workers in southern Egypt along the Nile River. As he drove home from his clinic one night in April, masked men stopped his car, grabbed him at gunpoint, and beat him unconscious.
They threw him in the middle of a sugar cane field, where he was hidden from the outside world by the head-high stalks and sharp-edged leaves. For five days, he says, his captors left him bound and blindfolded in the field, without food. The men – he never saw their faces – called his father to deliver the ransom demand. They beat Elya during the call, to encourage his father to act quickly.
"They threatened me with many things," says Elya. "A lot of difficult things, difficult for you to imagine."
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At first, the kidnappers demanded £1.6 million (Egyptian, US$228,000). But they had miscalculated – Elya's family wasn't rich. His father scrambled to buy Elya's freedom. He sold his apartment and Elya's. He pulled his other children out of private universities. He borrowed money from friends.
When it was all over, Elya's father had paid £150,000 to the kidnappers – and another £250,000 to people who either claimed to be the abductors or promised help. Neither the local police nor federal authorities aided the family at all.
"The government didn't do anything for me," he says. "It didn't help me. But this is what happens – this is Egypt."
Elya's story takes place in a small town deep in the vast expanse of the Egypt that is usually forgotten. This is Upper Egypt, so named because it is upriver from Cairo and the delta. By the time the river that is Egypt's lifeblood reaches the capital and then the Mediterranean Sea, it has coursed north from the border with Sudan, past the cities and towns where people toil far from the political tumult of Tahrir Square, their struggles virtually invisible there.
As Egypt confronts another hinge moment in its millenniums-old history, a journey down the Nile reveals some of the reasons why political unrest once again engulfs the streets of this country and what challenges any government that ultimately emerges – however democratic – will have to face. Decades of government neglect and more recent failings since the 2011 uprising have left the economy and some of the stanchions of Egyptian society in disrepair: Schools are struggling, railways are crumbling, and social strife is rising as discrimination and sectarian violence grow.
The problems are exacerbated by a surge in kidnappings, once a rare phenomenon in Egypt, the looting of the country's historical sites, and a thriving trade in illegal weapons – signs of either a fear of personal safety or a desperation to make money in a society whose economy has atrophied. Even the country's farmers, who have been tilling the lush fields along the Nile since the birth of human civilization, are struggling to survive and produce enough food for a rapidly growing population.