Mourning and worrying about the future in rural Egypt

As Egyptians worry about the economy, a rural family torn apart by tragedy faces a crisis without their main earners.

Cairo, Egypt – Egypt’s grinding economic crisis is top of mind as the country waits for the results of its presidential election in which the incumbent President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is expected to win.

For decades, Egyptians who could manage it have become economic migrants in other countries, especially in the region, a phenomenon that has accelerated notably in recent years.

Over the last year, inflation has spiked 72 percent on food products while the Egyptian pound has devalued three times. The latter has lost 50 percent of its value and is responsible for pushing many Egyptians into poverty.

In 2019, the World Bank classified 60 percent of Egyptians as either “poor or vulnerable”.

Nazlet el-Sharif

The subdued streets of the village of Nazlet el-Sharif – population about 1,000 – which sits on the Nile in Bani Suef about two hours south of Cairo, bear witness to this hardship in all its layers.

When Al Jazeera visited at the end of September, days after the Mawlid al-Nabawi commemoration of the Prophet Mohammad’s birth, the village was still in full mourning for the 74 village men who died in the catastrophic dam collapse in Derna, Libya, on September 10.

“The cafes are empty or almost empty … many families are at home mourning,” Youssef, who lives in the neighbouring village, said as he jumped off a minibus.

Yousef, 20, is from a small, mostly Coptic village near Nazlet el-Sharif. Like many young people from his village, he is a seasonal employee in Sharm el-Sheikh, a tourism hub in the Sinai Peninsula. But a decline in tourists in recent years, due to the COVID pandemic followed by security incidents in the country, has led to layoffs.

He is still luckier than others who died in the flood in Derna, where 145 Egyptians were killed.

One of the youngest men caught in the Derna catastrophe, and one of the few survivors, was 19-year-old Saad, who had only been in Libya for six weeks. He had gone there to work alongside his older brother Mostafa.

They shared a house and the hell that engulfed Derna that night. Saad was carried away by the waves but managed to escape while 25-year-old Mostafa was not so fortunate. His body has not been found yet.

The bodies of only 60 Nazlet el-Sharif men were repatriated by the Egyptian authorities for a joint funeral ceremony on September 13, attended by the governor of Bani Suef.

The families of the 14 missing men have had no closure, and did not receive the 30,000 Egyptian pounds ($969 officially and $666 on the black market) that the government gave the family of each deceased man.

Like Mostafa’s family, they are devastated by the loss of a loved one who was also their only financial support.

Many of these workers, like Saad and Mostafa, had to borrow money to be able to get to Libya in the first place, and the families had to face those debts. In the case of Saad’s family, they now have to survive on the meagre wages his father Ahmed can make as an agricultural labourer, which is as little as 100 Egyptian pounds ($2-$3) a day.

Economic crisis, political crisis

Like other villages, Nazlet el-Sharif has been sending workers to Libya for decades, mostly in the construction and maintenance sectors.

Their only choice in the country is either to head to Cairo to find whatever odd jobs they can or work as agricultural labourers like Ahmed. And so, many leave.

Remittances from abroad are a source of precious foreign currency for Egypt, which has been struggling to replenish its reserves since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

In 2022, remittances totalled $31.8bn, or 7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), much higher than the income generated by the Suez Canal (around $8bn) and tourism (around $11bn) combined.

This is largely comes from 10 million Egyptian expatriates, including Saad, his brother Mostafa and many others like them.

The state of the economy has angered a lot of Egyptians who are finding it difficult to make ends meet.

However, the precariousness of the economy and the security situation in light of the violence in neighbouring Gaza means that incumbent President el-Sisi is likely to stay in office.

Competing against three untried opposition candidates, el-Sisi still has the loyalty of people like Ahmed who, despite receiving no financial assistance from the government, believes in el-Sisi. “May God grant him health and prolong his life. He has done a lot for us,” he said fervently.

Three months after the tragedy, his family is still struggling. They are still in debt and they have been unable to repay the cost of Saad’s trip to Libya. His brother Mohammad is also working in the village trying as much as he can to help the family.

Meanwhile, Saad spends more time in Cairo where he sees a therapist who helps him overcome his trauma. He started therapy a month ago and has been told by his therapist that he is not fit to work.

Mostafa’s two-year-old daughter and infant son live with his widow, who works as an assistant in the Beni Suef branch of Al-Azhar – the largest religious institution in Egypt, barely earning a living.

Source: Al Jazeera