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Cover Story

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.

(Page 7 of 8)



Landowners say that before the uprising, police would often demolish illegally built structures. Now people are developing land virtually unhindered, simply paying a fine after the building is finished. With the lax enforcement, illegal structures have been popping up all over Upper Egypt for the past two years, and experts say the trend could have an alarming effect on agricultural output in the future.

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"What are we going to do? Agriculture doesn't pay anymore," says Kamel. "Everything is more expensive. We have a big family. I'm building a future for my children."

Nearby, past the cluster of newly built structures, green farmland stretches for about a mile before running into the brick buildings of the village. "Within five years, all that land will be built on," says Kamel, making a sweeping gesture toward the fields.

*     *     *

Egypt's lax security has consequences not only for its present, but also for the protection of its past. North of Mallawi, on the opposite bank of the Nile, lies Sheikh Ibada, a small village built on the edge of the ancient Roman city of Antinopolis. It's also the site of a former Pharaonic temple and contains artifacts from Egypt's Christian period. Since the uprising, it's been regularly looted – an outgrowth of hard economic times and insecurity that endangers some of Egypt's, and the world's, most treasured antiquities.

As we drive into the site, there are few signs of its spectacular history in the mostly barren landscape. We pass mounds of ancient pottery shards, and a few toppled pillars and capitals. But when we round a corner, we see a group of people in the distance, the puffs of rising sand a sign of their digging. As we approach, they scatter and hide in a nearby cemetery.

Eventually, satisfied we are not police, they return. The group of seven mostly teenagers sift the sand with round sieves in hopes of finding small artifacts – ancient coins, small statues, and what they call "glass masks." Most of what they find sells for a few hundred pounds, but occasionally they find an artifact worth thousands.

Ahmed, a friendly teenager, says the area is an ancient trash heap: They are just digging through their ancestors' garbage to make a living. "Everyone from the town comes here to dig," says Ahmed. "Whoever saves a bit of money buys weapons in this bad time, or puts the money toward his marriage."

They sell the artifacts to "traders" from outside the village, and the income is enough to keep them coming back. As we talk, more men come to dig, their faces covered with scarves to hide their identities as well as shield themselves from the grit-filled wind.

Archaeologists say looting is going on at cultural sites throughout Upper Egypt and even near Cairo. An inspector responsible for protecting this site says the police know it's happening but do nothing to stop it, while the government ministry responsible for antiquities ignores requests for more security. "It's a tragedy, all this damage of our history and heritage," he says. "In my opinion, the revolution destroyed our heritage."

*     *     *

It began over something as mundane as the construction of a speed bump. By the time it was over, it had escalated into sectarian mob violence, with two Muslims being killed and dozens of Christian homes and shops being torched and looted. The incident, which occurred in April 2011 in the village of Abu Qurqas, the last stop on our journey, is a reminder that religious tensions still persist in Egypt – and remain a major challenge for a nation in search of an inclusive and functional democracy.

Abu Qurqas is located in the province of Minya, which has a large Christian population and a history of attacks on Christians. Throughout Egypt, sectarian violence was on the rise even during the last years of President Hosni Mubarak's rule and continued to escalate after the 2011 uprising. It has intensified again since the ouster of Morsi, with aggrieved Islamists attacking individual Christians and their churches. Abu Qurqas provides a window into the current mood.

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