A town of rutted roads is one of Egypt’s most troublesome flashpoints


People walk on a street in Fayoum, Egypt. (Holly Pickett/For The Washington Post)

Two years ago, people here were enthusiastic about democracy.

Residents of this poor farming province attended political rallies, debated politics and spoke openly about their desire for an Islamist government.

But nine months after a military coup, and weeks ahead of another presidential election, few here are still interested in politics.

To many in Fayoum and in other stretches of Egypt’s rural hinterland, where the conservative poor once formed the backbone of this nation’s Islamist rise, democracy died with last summer’s coup. Hopes were dashed. A familiar fear has settled in once again.

“The last election allowed people to choose for the first time. And the people chose Mohamed Morsi,” said Reda Saad, a white-bearded shopkeeper, who remembered standing in line in the hot sun to cast his vote in 2012. “Now the people are frustrated,” he said.

Fayoum, which sits along a muddy Nile tributary, 64 miles southwest of Cairo, voted overwhelmingly for Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood member who won the country’s first democratic presidential election.

Today Morsi’s campaign posters remain plastered to the provincial capital’s crumbling walls, while images of the man who ousted him — former military chief and leading presidential candidate Abdel Fatah al-Sissi — are conspicuously absent.

“I don’t feel like there is anyone who represents me now,” said a middle-aged man who was shopping along an unpaved market street, his wife at his side, cloaked in a black veil. The couple wouldn’t give their names and were in a hurry to move on.

Apathy and bitterness hangs over the rutted dirt roads here, where farmers hawk dusty vegetables and river fish in the shadows of the slums. Many who would agree to talk said simply that they would boycott the election.

“I’m not going to vote,” said Sayed Eid, a bearded cashier at a stand selling fuul sandwiches, made from mashed beans, for 10 cents apiece.

The customers around him laughed when the question went to them. “Sissi,” one man in the line offered, almost sarcastically, while the others looked at their feet.

“It’s the reality we have to live with,” said Ahmed Mamdouh — a petroleum engineer and the only man in line who would give his full name.

The rural towns along Egypt’s southern Nile were once fertile ground for violent extremism under the repressive regimes of Hosni Mubarak and his military predecessors.

Omar Abdel Rahman, the “blind sheik” who is serving a life sentence in the United States for plotting terrorist attacks, made a name for himself in Fayoum as a young preacher in the 1960s. And his supporters are common here.

With the Islamists locked out of politics, the threat of extremist violence now looms more prominently, analysts say.

Since the coup, protests and deadly clashes between Morsi’s supporters and security forces have erupted here with regularity. On a recent day, security forces had barricaded the gate of Fayoum University, as well as seemingly random streets throughout the sleepy district center.

A spokesman for Egypt’s interior ministry named Fayoum among the nation’s most troublesome flash points.

But one sector of the population here says its fortunes have improved.

Harassed and intimidated by hard-line Islamists who were empowered by Mubarak’s fall, some members of Fayoum’s Coptic Christian minority said the military takeover has dampened their distress by weakening their foes.

Hard-line Salafists, followers of the Islamist Nour party, used to harass unveiled women in the streets, said Akram Ezzat, a Christian agricultural engineer.

But with their political gains reversed, the Islamists no longer “feel strong enough to do it,” he said. “On the contrary, after Morsi was gone, they started being nicer to normal people. They tried to get closer to the Copts, telling us they’re our friends,” he said.

The more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, which once held crowded public meetings and charity drives throughout Fayoum, has grown “fearful and cowardly,” he said.

Area Christians would vote overwhelmingly for Sissi later this month in order to keep it that way, Ezzat added.

The Nour party, which was the only Islamist group to support the coup, declined to comment much on the status quo.

“The party takes the sides of the best interests of the country,” said Mohamed Abu Tawab, the party’s local secretary general, who spoke over the phone but refused to meet in person because of unspecified “circumstances.”

Local Islamists who said they once voted for the hard-line party now call its members traitors to the cause.

“They’re only boot-lickers,” said Saad, the shopkeeper. “They’ll do anything to stay in power.” He sat in the shade outside his shop, fingering a set of prayer beads.

“Now the military is telling us to vote for them,” he said, meaning Sissi. “Should I vote for you out of fear, or out of the conviction that you’ll do something for the country?” He shook his head, alluding to a bleak future.

Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.

Abigail Hauslohner has been The Post’s Cairo bureau chief since 2012. She served previously as a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine and has been covering the Middle East since 2007.
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