To Settle Desert, Egypt Uses Women to Lure Urban Men

IN Egypt, people cling to the Nile River like hornets to a nest. They crowd into narrow alleys and crannies of lopsided buildings in Cairo. And in the villages located along the Nile, they cram five to a bed in one-room brick houses.

The government is desperate to move people from the overcrowded Nile valley to the desert. One government relocation program gives women five acres of desert land, a house, and a monthly salary in hopes that they and their assets will draw men out of the valley and into the barren Sahara to settle and procreate.

This is just one of many strategies used in the last 40 years to relocate people to the desert in order to relieve overpopulation and save the precious, but dwindling Nile agricultural land.

Other government programs include pumping millions of dollars into the construction of isolated desert cities and pushing the private sector to develop huge stretches of the country's coasts.

About 99 percent of Egypt's 58 million people live in the Nile valley. This 25,000-square-mile green strip that runs along the river and from Cairo north to the Mediterranean Sea accounts for 4 percent of Egypt's land, the rest is almost all desert.

Another relocation program gives high school and university graduates land, a house, financial and food assistance, and the necessary infrastructure to start their own desert farm. Authorities designed this program, which began for men only in 1981, to decrease the country's unemployment -- now at 10 percent -- while also populating the desert.

In 1987, women graduates began participating in the program, but they could not marry until they convinced a man that the empty Sahara was better than the bustling city.

The 35,000 graduates now farming the desert have reclaimed 175,000 acres of desert land, boasts Fouad Abou-Hadab, project coordinator and chairman of the International Center for Training and Development of New Lands in Maryout, about 120 miles north of Cairo. He adds that 50 percent of the 3,200 women participants have married.

At the Bustan development, 70 miles north of Cairo, graduates say their desert farm is profitable, but starting out was rough. ''There were no trees, only houses,'' says Nabila Mohammed Abdou, a mother of two from Alexandria. ''Everything was yellow, just desert.''

Mrs. Abdou and her husband say that at first they had no running water in their homes, no schools, or clinics. And they invested over $7,500 of their own savings in their farm.

Abdou graduated from Alexandria University's agriculture program in 1983 and received her land in 1988. Abdou soon married and she and her family live in a two-room brick home with a small yard.

But Abdou and her husband are fortunate. Many graduates have left the land because they didn't have enough money to support it, say former program organizers, graduates, and city planners.

This and other government programs show that populating the desert is not easy. ''After years of concerted [governmental] effort, how many people live in the desert?'' asks David Sims, an independent urban-planning consultant. ''I would say in percentage terms there are less Egyptians living outside the Nile valley now than there were 20 years ago.''

In 1976, 99 percent of Egypt's population lived in the valley, according to Ministry of Population statistics, the same ratio as today.

Perhaps the most ambitious government project to populate the desert was the construction, beginning in 1976, of 15 residential and industrial desert communities at a cost of nearly $500 million. While the authorities hoped to settle 6 million people in these cities of high-rise buildings that spring from the desert like a mirage, only 300,000 live in them today.

In Sadat City, 50 miles north of Cairo, rows of empty sandy-brown apartment buildings march toward the desert horizon. Besides two people chatting at a snack stand and a handful of boys playing soccer, the windswept roads are empty.

''If you consider the size of the population living in these areas, we can't say we have succeeded,'' admitts Hussein al-Gebaly, undersecretary for technical affairs at the Ministry of Reconstruction and New Communities in Cairo.

But the government, offering 10-year tax exemptions and other incentives, has succeeded, he adds, in drawing more than 1,300 industries to these desert communities that otherwise would have located on Nile agricultural land.

Planners claim that no one lives in these cities, because they aren't people-friendly. The homes cost too much for average Egyptians, and developments lack essential services.

But the government isn't giving up. In a scheme begun in 1991, authorities are trying to persuade the private sector to transform 175 square miles of desert into bustling tourist towns along the country's Gulf of Aqaba and Red Sea coasts. By the year 2017, nearly 150,000 people will live in these recreational oases, the government estimates.

Other government schemes to populate the desert include offering private entrepreneurs incentives to farm the desert and lucrative tourist villages on the north coast.

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