CAIRO — A few miles from the throngs of anti-military protesters in central Cairo on Sunday, the eve of Egypt’s first election since the winter revolution, farmer Sayed el Hassan loaded cabbage and broccoli onto a donkey-drawn wooden cart near lush green fields.
The 50-year-old’s pants were tied together with a shoelace; the button was missing and he couldn’t afford a new pair. He has worked in agriculture since he was 10. Like millions of Egyptians, he and his family must make do on a few dollars a day.
His earnings have dropped dramatically since the uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak. These days, he can barely afford a $25 bag of fertilizer.
Around him, the nation has plunged into a deepening political crisis that has created a grim backdrop for parliamentary elections that begin Monday. The vote will be a milestone now that Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which was notorious for rigging elections, has been disbanded. But a date many hoped would be the first fruit of an arduous revolt looks more like yet another bump in a revolution far from over.
Hassan said he understands the demands of urban protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where thousands of people are calling for the ouster of Egypt’s military rulers and an end to alleged human rights violations at the hands of their forces. But like most Egyptians in the so-called silent majority, he doesn’t have the time or the money to take action.
“We are people of the land,” he said, his face aged beyond his years from days of fieldwork in the blazing sun. “We go from the field to our home and from our home to the field.” Only time will heal Egypt’s wounds, only time will rid it of corruption, he said. He said he’s sympathetic to the prospects of change but scared of the upheaval revolutions bring.
The election follows nine days of protests in Tahrir Square. The resulting brutal crackdown by military forces has left at least 42 people dead and wounded more than 3,000. Egypt’s military chiefs, the country’s interim rulers, are digging in their heels and refusing to immediately cede power to a civilian government, arguing that stepping aside would invite chaos.
As Hassan simply tries to survive, the loudest voices in this country of 82 million are divided into pro- and anti-military camps. Borrowing a tactic from their rivals, a group supporting the military chiefs’ plan to remain in control until after presidential elections has called for a “million-man march” Friday. On Sunday, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi warned of “grave consequences” if the vote does not proceed as planned and promised the council would not submit to popular pressure.
With the country polarized, many fear that Election Day will be violent, as the nation’s elections have been historically. Already, at least two candidates reportedly have been attacked, according to a candidate for parliament; one was stabbed and the other threatened by men with sawed-off shotguns. There is a growing debate among activists about whether to boycott the election.
While some candidates had suspended their campaigns last week, most have resumed. A few candidates have withdrawn from the race, but their names are still on the ballots, and some are concerned that the wealthy from Mubarak’s now-dissolved party will use money and influence to hire thugs to intimidate voters.
The unrest has made the first taste of democracy bittersweet to Egyptians such as Hassan.
“Everyone needs to go home now so we can live and put food on our tables,” Hassan said. “We want the country to be stable.”
Around him are female relatives who work the land as well. Just before the uprising that not only changed the trajectory of the country but also mobilized protesters against strong-fisted rulers around the region, Hassan sold two pounds of broccoli for just under a dollar. Now he can barely get 25 cents.
On area farms, the opinions are as divided as they are in the rest of the nation.
Next to Hassan, farmer Abdel Fatah Ali got off his old bicycle to join in the conversation as the workers prepared to leave the fields.
“If it weren’t for the military council, Egypt would’ve been destroyed. A million or even 5 million people shouldn’t speak for 80 million people,” Ali said. “We have to be reasonable. Thirty years of corruption can’t be treated in 24 hours. It even took God six days to create the universe.”
Farmer Kamal Ahmed Ibrahim used a sickle to wrestle dill from the ground and then expertly wrapped it in cloth. If he left work to join the anti-military protests, he wouldn’t be able to feed his family, he said. He briefly participated in protests against Mubarak in January but only those close to home. Now this unfinished revolution would have to go on without him, he said.
Ibrahim, like his father and grandfather, cannot read. They started working the land as young boys, but he has bigger dreams for his own children. They are in school. They will be engineers and doctors; people like the ones in Tahrir Square who have the time and education to demand their rights, he said. “God willing, they will have an education. The future of Egypt is unknown. There are things only God knows,” Ibrahim said.
He and and the other farmers plan to vote this week. Their ballots, they said, will go to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party. Although activists have accused the party of political opportunism for not participating in the protests, Ibrahim said the party understands oppression and poverty, having experienced it under Mubarak. The Islamist organization provides charity, food drives and book drives for the poor.
“This week the universe turned upside down a little bit,” Ibrahim said. “It hurt our business. But that's okay. We’re talking about the future for our families.”
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.