washingtonpost.com
Correction to This Article
A photograph of the Aswan High Dam that appeared with a Nov. 3 article about Egypt was incorrectly credited. It was taken by Alexandra Garcia of washingtonpost.com.
The Children of the High Dam
A Journey Along the Nile Reveals an Egypt At the End of a Long Era of Broken Promises, Moving Into a Less Certain, Less Secular Future

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 3, 2006

ASWAN, Egypt -- Ilham Shary had a sense of awe as he stood atop a towering memorial overlooking the Aswan High Dam. Before him meandered the Nile, the world's longest river, harnessed into a canal. Behind was Lake Nasser, the largest man-made reservoir. And as he gazed at the dam under a searing sun, he wistfully recalled watching as many as 30,000 workers toil 11 years building what the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser promised would modernize a nation living in the shadow of its past.

"We are the children of the High Dam," said Shary, a longtime employee of the dam.

For a certain generation, the dam, completed in 1970 and packing 17 times as much sand and stone as the greatest pyramid at Giza, was more than a colossal tool to electrify the countryside, provide water to reclaim hundreds of thousands of acres of desert and power nascent industry along the Nile Valley. Time and again, Nasser made it the symbol of his revolution, the very contract with his people: With the dam, the new government would bring dignity to peasants, development to cities and freedom and independence to a country emerging from 70 years of British tutelage.

Fifty years after Nasser proclaimed his vision, the dam marks another testament of sorts: a faded memorial to Nasser, his successors and their era, a time of dramatic ambitions and even more spectacular failures. Nasser bequeathed power to Anwar Sadat, Sadat to Hosni Mubarak, whose 25-year reign is, even by the admission of its own officials, in its twilight, having realized few of those promises made to a country that embraced a secular nationalism but witnessed a withering bureaucratic authoritarianism. The dam today represents the three leaders' bitter legacy: Their governments corralled the Nile, but as the Nile slowed, so did Egypt, the currents of its society stagnating.

The dam is a starting point for a 690-mile journey along the river, through the Arab world's most populous country and its most gifted, charting a future far different from the one envisioned by Shary, the High Dam employee. The journey is a portrait of 21st-century Egypt as the nation closes one era, unsure about the next.

The Nile winds like a ribbon through the south, where the peasants Nasser promised to liberate still live in squalor. Along the way is the oasis-like terrain where the government, through a fearsome crackdown, defeated militants bent on forging an Islamic state. In the capital, the government has squelched a budding campaign for political change, relying on a sprawling police apparatus that, while lacking the brutality of other Arab governments, still readily beats those who dissent. Farther down the river, as its branches water the lush Nile Delta before emptying into the Mediterranean, is evidence that another Islamic current, eschewing guns for grass-roots work, will help decide what comes next.

And its beginning, the High Dam?

"To our generation, it was a symbol of dignity," said Fahmi Howeidi, a prominent writer.

"Now it's become a tourist stop," he said.

'A Country of Beggars'

A little before midnight, Train No. 86 shook, then heaved out of the Aswan station, built in a neo-pharaonic design of squat columns, imposing facade and precise angles, then as now a symbol of regal power. At each overnight stop along the river, more third-class passengers boarded, mostly young, unemployed men. They hoisted their belongings into the overhead racks: plastic sacks, gym bags and cardboard boxes tied with shoestring. Then they jockeyed for the dwindling space -- on the dusty floor, near a decrepit restroom, atop the racks themselves or occasionally a seat.

After dawn, the train took on its biggest contingent, teenage boys from Sohag, the grandchildren of the High Dam.

"The country is like a staircase," said one, 17-year-old Abdo Mohammed. "There are those at the top and those below."

In Arabic, southern Egypt is known as the Sa'id, a fiercely conservative, traditionally neglected region whose inhabitants are sometimes ridiculed as bumpkins by the more urbane north. During the oil boom in the 1970s and after, the Sa'id sent legions of its young to Cairo and abroad for work, migration that has become a powerful, recurring theme in the region's literature.

"We could work as peasants, but who wants to be a peasant?" said Mohammed's friend, Bassam Mahmoud.

The sinewy boys sat at the railcar's open door, their legs dangling outside. The breeze carried the stench of urine from the nearby restroom. Vendors hawking everything from combs to daily newspapers barreled down the crowded aisle. "Tea! Tea!" one cried, offering a plastic cup for 4 cents. To the side, a gaggle of boys sang a song by Abdel Halim Hafez, an Egyptian legend.

"Wandering, I walk through the nights, wandering," they shouted, their enthusiasm overwhelming the melody. "With no control over myself, wandering. From our separation, precious, wandering. What has happened to me?"

Ahmed Hassan, a gaunt 17-year-old, joined the conversation, wearing a jersey, No. 9, for the Guinea soccer team. He had a word for his fellow laborers seeking elusive work: ghalaba, dirt-poor. Sullenly, he said he had paid about $1.80 for the train fare.

"You have to work from dawn to nightfall just to earn the money for the ticket," he said.

Hassan watched the farmland pass, groves of oranges, plots of sugar cane and rice, taking him farther from home.

"There's no future," he said. "There's no future at all." He and the others fell silent. The most reflective of the boys, Hassan seemed to grow bitter. His dream was to play soccer, anywhere; instead, he figured he would settle for a job that paid $5 a day -- maybe more, probably less -- to clean hotel rooms. "Egypt is a country of beggars. Really. It's not its fault, it just doesn't have money."

As he spoke, the boys behind him kept singing.

"I can't find rest, and I'm lost, wandering," the refrain went.

Gulf Between Ruler and Ruled

Before noon, the heat like a blanket, the train rumbled into Asyut, a low-slung city of 400,000 suffused with police. Beyond it is a procession of unexceptional villages, fanning out along a highway where rural and urban blend. An hour away on that road is Manshiet Nasser, a warren of concrete and brick houses, where asphalt soon turns to dirt.

In May 1992, briefly but violently, the village of Manshiet Nasser surrendered its anonymity. Islamic insurgents, their faces concealed by scarves, opened fire with guns and pistols on Christian villagers in verdant fields and narrow alleys. Thirteen people were killed and simmering sectarian tension exploded in what many mark as the beginning of a revolt against Mubarak's rule.

"It was like a cloud that hung low over the village. It poured down rain, then the clouds parted," said Nabil Tawfiq, a landless Christian peasant. He reflected on the past, then turned to the present. "Thank God, the sun came out."

The carnage in places such as Algeria and Iraq has overshadowed Egypt's insurgency, but for five years in the 1990s, it cast a long shadow over the Sa'id. Guerrillas targeted tourists, police and Christians in a fight with the government that claimed more than 1,000 lives along a 130-mile stretch of the Nile. Many times more were wounded. The government bulldozed houses, imprisoned thousands, arrested suspects' relatives and liberally used torture in a sometimes arbitrary crackdown.

It proved both a tactical victory for Mubarak and an insight into his government. Like his predecessors, he remains beholden to a military logic: In the face of a threat, coercion -- sometimes brutal -- is the reflex reaction.

In Manshiet Nasser, the 16-month curfew ended long ago. So did the random detentions. Gone are the armored vehicles that stood at the village's entrance. But the conditions that helped give rise to the insurgency remain today, the same gulf between ruler and ruled that propels the more moderate Islamic activism gathering strength in Egypt's largest cities down the Nile.

The promise of Nasser, symbolized by the High Dam, is distant.

"What of it?" asked Makram Khalil, a 54-year-old peasant.

"There's no work, there's no nothing. People are just sleeping," Tawfiq said, sitting with Khalil and other friends in an alley, where a water buffalo was tethered to a house. Donkeys and bicycles plied the road, within sight of the desert bluffs that mark the stark border with the Nile Valley. "We're the people at the end of the earth." He smiled at the thought. "I can't even write my name," he said.

Their last encounter with the government was this spring, when security forces ordered villagers to kill their chickens to stem the spread of bird flu. Tawfiq, without any land, said the poultry brought him his sole income, between $2 and $3 a day.

"I have hope in God, not in man," said his friend Khalil. His seven children live in three rooms, Khalil said, with neither electricity nor water. He also has no land; on good days, he sells his labor for $2 a day. "What has the government done for me? I haven't seen anything. It has billions of dollars, and you find people living here without a single piece of bread."

He said he was angry. "But," Khalil asked matter-of-factly, "what is anger going to get me?"

A New Social Contract

Train No. 777 pulled into Giza, Cairo's sister city across the Nile, after nightfall. Shoulder to shoulder, some passengers clambered toward the Metro, others into waiting taxis. Most embarked along the sidewalks, near the Giza Security Directorate, past a phalanx of blue patrol wagons. In a city of rickety cars, each truck bore new paint. The windows of each were barricaded with grilles. Each had a shiny, Chinese-made padlock on its door.

In a broad crackdown that has squelched a two-year-old reform movement, the government has relied on the security forces as its pillar. Not that security is anything new to Egypt's governments; the heavy hand of the state was a staple of Nasser's rule, when he fought a ruthless battle against the Muslim Brotherhood, long the country's most powerful Islamic movement. But the charismatic Nasser, even the ostentatious Anwar Sadat, could rely on something missing today: optimism or, more bluntly, hope.

"At the time, whenever we asked for anything, they told us, 'After the High Dam, the country will prosper. After the High Dam, there will be electricity everywhere,' " Safinaz Kazem, an Egyptian writer, recalled in the documentary "Four Women of Egypt." In those days, she traveled with her sister to Europe. "One man asked us, 'Do you have snow in Egypt?' Without thinking, and in all seriousness, my sister replied, 'After the High Dam, we'll have snow in Egypt!' "

The dam has always had its detractors. To many, its very construction set Nasser on the path of Arab nationalism that led to Egypt's defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The millennia-old homeland of the Nubians was submerged beneath 310-mile-long Lake Nasser, sending many into exile in a lonely narrative still being written. But the dam was less a project and more a mood. Nasser, as a propaganda film insisted, built the High Dam to remind Egypt that "there are no unattainable goals."

"It was part of the social contract, part of the relationship between the government and people," said Ali el-Din Hilal, a former minister who sits on a policy-setting committee of Mubarak's National Democratic Party. "It was the instrument through which the state could deliver services, reclaim land, generate electricity and employ people."

Cairo is a far different city today, its needs exponentially greater than in the era of the High Dam's construction. On any morning, its 18 million people are joined by a million more pouring in from the hinterland. In vast swaths of unplanned development, water and sewers are a luxury. Joblessness is the biggest complaint, followed by education and health-care systems that many feel are collapsing. Anecdotal or not, corruption, perhaps coded language for inequity, is said time and again to be worse than ever. And most dramatically, the city's mood has changed: a growing religiosity that mirrors and propels a similar shift across the Arab world.

Within that tattered fabric, many see a new social contract of sorts being forged in the grass roots, in an inverse of the High Dam. Its constituency is often the same that rallied for Nasser as he challenged the West and promised dignity; its guarantor is the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement formed on the Suez Canal in 1928 that, in numbers and organization, now commands the greatest support in the street. Where optimism is rare, its activists often exude the most hope.

"People will look there," said Mahmoud Ezzat, a physician who serves as secretary general of the Brotherhood. He meant the government. "People will look here," he said. He meant the Brotherhood's headquarters in Cairo, its door marked by a simple white sticker that belies the scope of its infrastructure: schools, clinics, hospitals, professional syndicates and charities.

"They'll see," he said simply.

A little way from the Giza train station, in the neighborhood of Amraniya, is the Islamic Medical Association, run by the Brotherhood. Inside, 26-year-old Hamadeh Hafez was dragging on a cigarette as he waited fretfully in a stairwell. His wife was in labor with their first child, and he would pay half at the Brotherhood hospital what he would pay elsewhere. More important, he said, he would be treated with respect.

"They're nothing like the other doctors who give us two minutes, charge us 50 pounds and tell us, 'God heal you,' " he said.

"Let's face it," Hafez added. "If there are morals and religion, the treatment will always be good."

'Patience Is Our Foundation'

The trains leave Cairo on the hour, and No. 919 lurched toward Alexandria in the afternoon. At the front of a railcar, a sign read, "Don't forget to remember God." In one seat on the nearly empty train, a passenger, his briefcase beside him, read the Koran aloud. The verses were soft, like a radio turned low.

It is an irony of modern Egypt that Alexandria, once the country's most diverse, elegant and cosmopolitan city, unfolding in a crescent around the Mediterranean coast, has emerged as a Brotherhood redoubt. Of its 88 members in parliament from across the country, roughly a fifth of all seats, eight hail from the faded city. One is Husain Mohammed Ebrahim, a 47-year-old father of four, twice arrested by the state, who worked with a construction company and since 2000 has represented the gritty, indigent neighborhood of Mina el-Basil.

"Patience," he said, grinning, in an office adorned with the slogan "Islam is the solution." "Patience is our foundation."

In some ways, the Brotherhood has emerged as a paradox of Islamic politics: The Muslim world often seems paralyzed by its sense of siege imposed by the West, giving rise to atavism, intolerance and xenophobia in the region. The Brotherhood's very confidence has allowed it, in words and sometimes action, to embrace change from what it sees as a position of strength. References to pluralism, civil society and democracy punctuate its rhetoric. Once rigidly hierarchical and secretive, it has become far more open, though many of the country's secular voices still hold it in deep suspicion. To allay some of those fears, it has pledged respect for women's rights. At protests, one slogan was meant to assure the Coptic Christian minority: "Copts are sons of the nation."

The Brotherhood has no doubt gained from the sea change in sentiments in the Middle East since Sept. 11, 2001. Its denunciations of U.S. policy play to the converted. In a struggle the United States at times casts in absolutes, attitudes have hardened over Israel and the Palestinian territories, the war in Iraq, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

But Ebrahim, unassuming yet cheerful, is blunt in saying what his constituents want: Their demands are material, the same as in Nasser's day. In professional syndicates dominated by the Brotherhood, health-care plans for thousands of members have been reformed. Earlier this year, the Brotherhood organized an awareness campaign on bird flu, citing government incompetence. In each constituency, Brotherhood members talk less about Palestine and more about unemployment, drinking water, sewage, trash collection, electricity, public transit and delivering better bread, the same promises that the Egyptian writer Kazem, only half-jokingly, expected would be taken care of once the High Dam was built.

Every Friday, Ebrahim prays at al-Miri mosque. He gathers with worshipers, then walks the streets, greeting cafegoers and asking about their hardships.

"We'd never go to the government for help," said Said Abdo Shehata, a 55-year-old laborer and one of Ebrahim's constituents. "Why? We can just go to him."

Shehata stood by the Friday Market in Ebrahim's district, where merchants were hawking a spectacular array of used radios, televisions, windowpanes, bed frames, blenders, telephones, single shoes and toilet seats. He attributed more to Ebrahim than Ebrahim even claimed himself: helping people find housing, paying hundreds of dollars for surgeries, sending students abroad.

The fruits of patience, Ebrahim explained.

And 690 miles from Aswan, he reflected on his hope for the future. His language was no different from that of 50 years ago.

"I want to live in a free country, one that is developed," he said. "I want to see Egypt with dignity."

He nodded his head. "God willing," he added.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company