Egypt Pulse

Upper Egypt villagers don't exist on paper

Article Summary
Many Upper Egyptian villagers are invisible to the government after generations of births and marriages without official paperwork, leaving them uncounted and without services.

When 17-year old Hania recently got married in the remote village of Naga'a Wanas in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Aswan, the union was marked only by the presence of the couple's families and a marriage announcement over the loudspeakers of the village mosques.

The inhabitants of this marginalized village cannot register their marriages, nor can they marry anyone from outside the village for a very simple reason: Most of them do not have identity cards, which means they also do not have access to education and other services.

In the far north of Aswan, Naga'a Wanas is virtually on its own, and most of its inhabitants live on farming and raising livestock.

This village is just one example of many of the villages in Upper Egypt whose residents exist beyond the reach of government services and the mainstream life of the country. As a result, they have created their own private world governed by their own rules.

Whenever Upper Egypt makes the headlines, it is usually because of vendetta violence or disasters. Scenes of ferryboats sinking, trains crashing and other misfortunes are often flashed onto our screens. Yet these tragedies, though serious, should not be allowed to distract from the everyday grievances of the people living in Upper Egypt. But so far, the lack of government services in many remote villages has not grabbed the government’s attention.

Belal Soliman is from the village of Naga'a Wanas. He told Al-Monitor that he has no ID card or marriage certificate and so he struggles to get health care for his wife and education for his children.

Soliman was not registered at birth by his parents. His wife's parents did not register their marriage either and Soliman's wife has no ID card. Without an ID, Soliman and his wife do not have access to state medical insurance.

If Soliman wants to take his wife to the clinic, he asks his brother-in-law to accompany them. “If I don’t take him with me, police at a checkpoint on the way to the clinic will stop me and inquire about my wife,” Soliman said. “I have no papers to prove my marriage. My brother-in-law will convince the police that the woman accompanying me is actually married to me,” he added, explaining that his brother-in-law was a witness to the marriage.

Soliman thought about getting an ID, but the process is complicated. Before he can apply, his parents would have to register their marriage. Transportation to the nearest registration office 50 kilometers (31 miles) away is expensive, and then there are costs for the paperwork.

“I cannot afford to pay this money,” he complained.

Am Hussein lives in the same village. He told Al-Monitor that he has been married for more than 20 years, but he registered the union only two years ago, just to have access to the government's ration cards and get subsidized food items.

Basma Tolba, founder of a charity association in the village established eight months ago called Al-Khier Charity, said that most of the marginalized villagers do not even know about registration and its benefits.

“Although the association provides help with marriage registration, it has managed to register only three marriages. There are thousands of couples in the village whose marriage is not officially documented,” Tolba told Al Monitor, adding that the local authorities should send registration officers around to visit remote villagers and help them to register.

“The government must launch campaigns to make villagers without IDs aware of the advantages of registration. These people must realize that they are not included in Egypt’s national census. They exist, but still they are invisible to the government,” Tolba stressed.

Poor villagers without IDs are also at a disadvantage in land disputes.

When Am Hussein was involved in one some months ago, he could not take the matter to court. “I could not speak out because I had nothing to prove my right to the land,” he said. “Some of my neighbors knew the land was mine, but the court needs official documents.”

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Found in: birth certificate, marriage, id card, egyptian government, poverty, egyptian society, upper egypt

Hagar Saeed Mohammed is a Cairo-based journalist and local editor at the Egyptian Gazette, Egypt's oldest English newspaper. She has been writing articles pertaining to social affairs, arts and culture since 2011. 

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