“I’m in a state of internal conflict,” Youssef said. “Shall I leave all this now and run away to give my son the opportunity to taste freedom? Then again, I’m an activist and a fighter, and if people like me leave, what happens to the rest?”
The bustle of Cairo is two hours and a world away from Kamal Abdel Mohsen’s farming village, where children plunge into the Nile to cool off on summer days and the loudest sounds are the lowing of water buffalo and the clucking of chickens.
The setting is serene, but life for Abdel Mohsen, 72, has been far from easy. He reared 10 children – six girls and four boys – on the farm, growing just enough corn, wheat and peaches to keep them fed. Sitting in his one-room, mud-brick house on a recent afternoon, he described his decades of swinging an ax with one or another of his children perched atop his broad shoulders.
He married off his daughters to local men and scrimped to send his sons for higher education, but Egypt’s chronic unemployment rendered their hard-won diplomas worthless.
After all these years, Abdel Mohsen said, they’re still sharecroppers, stuck with policies left over from the Mubarak regime that favor wealthy, typically nonresident landowners over those who work the fields. To his mind, the last friend of Egypt’s vast agrarian class was the late Arab nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died in office in 1970.
“Gamal helped us rent the land as cheaply as possible, or he gave it to us, and he protected our rights,” Abdel Mohsen said. “But Mubarak reversed all the farming laws, and now we pay a much higher price.”
Although the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions are said to enjoy broad grass-roots support among rural Egyptians, that’s not the case in Abdel Mohsen’s village in Qalyoubia province. Local farmers recall the lawless days of an Islamist insurgency that swept the country in the 1980s, and they worry about the seemingly limitless ambitions of the Brotherhood, whose campaign posters are scarce in the village.
“They can’t even handle the Parliament and now they want the presidency?” Abdel Mohsen complained.
While he supported the revolution’s goals, Abdel Mohsen said, he remains a solid backer of the interim military rulers, whom he credits with keeping the crisis from spiraling into a bloody civil war like those that emerged from the Libyan and Syrian uprisings. He said Egypt needed a firm hand for the transition to civilian rule.
So his vote is going to the former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, partly as an anti-Islamist stance, partly because Moussa has ancestral roots in a nearby village and partly out of a lack of better options.
“He’s ours; he belongs to us. The nearest are the best, right?” Abdel Mohsen said with a chuckle and a shrug.
When Heba Azouz, 24, first noticed the stirrings of revolution on her friends’ Facebook pages in the last months of 2010, she was immediately energized. Finally, she thought, Egyptians were rising up against the government’s daily, petty injustices that made “everything in life a fight.”
Azouz had just finished her university studies and was beginning medical school with an internship at a large, dismal public hospital in Cairo. She said the doctors were so overworked and underpaid – with salaries of less than $100 a month – that their performance was mediocre at best. She was aghast to find some physicians smoking in the operating room.