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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"My house in Hijaza was the one I set up for my wife and I after we were married. It was our home," he says. "This" – he gestures to the cramped apartment – "doesn't feel like home."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Trouble Along the Nile
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As the Nile arcs and ambles northward, it passes the town of Naga Hammadi, whose dun-colored streets and buildings are dirty and shabby, with a notable exception: the colorful juice bars. Naga Hammadi is known for its sugar cane, and the juice shops are marked by bright wood shavings on the ground, spread to absorb spilled drinks, and tepees of dried cane stalks out front.
In the heart of the town lies the Reform Center, so named because it is owned by the government authority set up under Nasser to redistribute Egypt's agricultural land as part of one of his socialist-nationalist reforms: taking plots from wealthy landowners and distributing them to peasants. Though that task was long ago completed, the authority still exists, and now oversees the garishly decorated collection of shops, restaurants, a wedding hall, and hotel. We watch families come to have tea or eat dinner in the open-air restaurant on the ground floor, sitting under blue and red neon lights while the music from the wedding hall thumps in the background.
Famous for its aluminum factory, Naga Hammadi is also now known among the Christian community in Upper Egypt for something more sinister: kidnappings. Activists estimate that about 30 Christians, including Elya, have been abducted for ransom since the 2011 uprising. There are even more cases of attempted kidnappings and extortion, with some people paying protection money to avoid being taken.
The activists say the kidnappers target Christians not because they are motivated by hate, but by opportunity – Christians are vulnerable, and a number of them in this community are wealthy. Many of the Muslim inhabitants of Naga Hammadi and the surrounding areas have large – and well-armed – families and tribes who retaliate if one of their members is harmed. "Copts are the weakest link in the chain," says Hana Haseeb, a local writer and activist. "We don't believe in vengeance, and we don't have weapons. So how can they make money? From the weakest class, the Christians, who are not protected by the state."
Mr. Haseeb and George Sobhi, a local lawyer who tallies the cases, say police rarely intervene, even when families file reports. And few victims do report their cases now, because of both inaction by authorities and a fear of retaliation by the kidnappers. Police say they can do nothing if the cases aren't reported. Kidnappings of Christians are also widespread in Minya, a city to the north, and spreading to places such as Sohag and Assiut.
As the abductions rise, families here and in surrounding areas are living in fear. Doctors and pharmacists, who are often targeted, speak of wondering "who's next?" They don't go out late at night anymore.
"I think if I can't protect myself, how can I protect my family?" says Hani Abdel Malak, one of the few who was kidnapped and later reported his case to police. (There have been no arrests.) "I lost confidence in the police, in the state, in everything around me. I feel at any second, anything could happen."
Many fathers shuttle their children to and from schools instead of sending them in buses or taxis. One pharmacist, whose 11-year-old son was abducted for two weeks last December, now refuses to allow the boy to go out of the house alone. "We're living in terror," he says.
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Along a small canal north of Naga Hammadi, we hear the staccato beat of water pumps that support an activity Egyptians have carried out in this area for thousands of years: tilling the land. The pumps draw water from one of the numerous canals that branch off the Nile and channel it into small irrigation ditches that trickle through lush fields of corn, wheat, sesame, and other crops.