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.
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When millions of Egyptians filled city squares across the country on June 30 to voice their rejection of now-deposed President Mohamed Morsi, Upper Egypt protested, too. Though the region does not usually see many protests, the sight of downtowns here brimming with demonstrators was a telling sign, particularly for the Muslim Brotherhood: Much of Upper Egypt, after all, voted for Mr. Morsi in the last elections.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Trouble Along the Nile
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In that sense, a journey down the Nile provides some insight into what the country's aspirations are as much as why it is so riven. With Morsi deposed, and the military-backed authorities suppressing the Brotherhood movement, debate swirls in Egypt about the future of political Islam and the Brotherhood's place in governance.
Yet more than anything, people along the world's longest river – one that the vast majority of Egyptians live within a few miles of – simply want a government that will invest in their lives, protect them from lawlessness, provide jobs, and allow them to live in dignity. They, like much of the rest of the world, want to know: Can Egypt find the stability and national cohesiveness to retake its historic place as one of the region's most dynamic and important powers?
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Along with a Monitor photographer, I start my journey at the Aswan High Dam, the massive structure built in the 1960s under then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser. After overthrowing the Egyptian monarchy and breaking British influence over Egypt, the nationalist leader needed electricity to support industrialization and sufficient water for increased agriculture.
The river that had for thousands of years brought fertile silt to the Nile Valley with its seasonal floods was tamed, turned into a dependable producer of hydroelectric power and a safeguard against drought. Constructed in the face of great international attention and geopolitical tension, the project, while not the first dam at Aswan, represented the culmination of aspirations to harness the river dating back to the 11th century.
Behind the dam sprawls a massive reservoir, its deep blue fingers extending into the tawny hills and cliffs of desert. Named for Nasser, the artificial lake stretches all the way across the border into Sudan. While the project has ended up controlling the Nile's mercurial waters, and contributing to the country's modernization, it didn't fully usher in the New Egypt that many had hoped, or been promised, in the nationalistic fervor of the moment. Today, only about 10 percent of Egypt's electricity is generated by hydropower.
The pledges of state-led development have given way to decades of government indifference toward Upper Egypt on everything from sanitation to basic security. Hopes for change after the 2011 uprising were similarly dashed.
As the Nile churns out of the dam, it meanders around lush green islands, setting an idyllic scene that belies the reality. On the north side of Aswan, a small canal flows into the river. It comes from an area of squat brick apartment buildings separated only by small dirt alleys. The area has no sewage system, and the smell of raw effluent rises from the canal, whose banks are strewn with trash. The waterway's contents flow directly into the Nile, a line forming where the green-brown muck of the canal collides with the fresh blue water of the river.
As it flows north, the line eventually disappears, even if the symbolism of the scene doesn't: of an Egypt still in need of basic plumbing, in certain areas, and encumbered by the rising problem of pollution.