In past decades, the people of the Egyptian countryside have remained active players in elections. Despite their low level of education, Egypt’s rural residents have participated in each successive election. They have done so not just for the sake of political participation, but mainly for social reasons.
Millions of votes are controlled by powerful figures in these remote areas, who do not receive the attention of either politicians or the media. Families often submit to the will of regional leaders. This has been the case for years. However, things looked different in the decisive round of Egypt’s recent presidential election in which Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, competed against Lieutenant General Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate affiliated with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
Egypt’s rural citizens, who are known for their inherent religiosity, are often attracted by religious slogans and promises of applying and ruling by Sharia law and God’s teachings. They revere the senior clergy; almost every home contains videos of speeches made by Salafist preachers Muhammad Hassan, Mohammad Hussein Yaqub, Abu-Isaac al-Huwaini and Isma’il al-Muqaddim. The Muslim Brotherhood also has a significant presence in these villages — the group has mastered the art of manipulating the sentiments of ordinary people.
Morsi’s supporters were indifferent to the revolution’s bold agenda for the Egyptian countryside. Instead they focused on the Salafist sheikhs’ support for their candidate, who upholds an “Islamic agenda.” They took advantage of the fact that village mosques play a key role in the shaping the views of the people. They became active in mosques and on street corners, presenting an Islamic discourse rather than a revolutionary one. Banners featuring pictures and names of pro-Morsi Salafist preachers have spread in order to win villager votes.
But Shafiq is a tenacious adversary. He knows full well on which side his bread is buttered. He has addressed the peoples’ interests rather than their feelings by promising peasants that their violations of the law would be overlooked. He even promised to legalize some illegal housing complexes built on agricultural lands. There is not a single village whose green land is not guilty of tens or hundreds of infringements, and the perpetrators see Shafiq’s promises as a way of fulfilling their long-awaited interests. Shafiq’s promises also resonated in the countryside, away from the media, creating rifts in families that had been staunch supporters of Morsi. The two days of elections witnessed multiple rows between country residents over their support of Morsi or Shafiq, which sometimes turned to clashes between cousins.
Mohammad Jamal, 26, is from the village of western Al-Riqqa. At the Ayat polling center in the Giza governorate, he said that he and his brothers voted for Shafiq so the house they built on an agricultural land they own in the village would be legalized. He added: “We have been living at the mercy of local administration officials for years. Our hope is to obtain a license for our house, and Shafiq has promised just that. So why not vote for him?”
His cousin, 32-year-old doctor Osama Sharif, rejects this “opportunistic view.” He said: “We should elect a president for Egypt, not an official that will help us obtain benefits. In the first place, Shafiq's promise is a violation of the law. And how can they guarantee that Shafiq will not demolish their homes? People should not be distracted by immediate and temporal interests.”