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Rural Egypt breaks from its Islamist past

Egyptians outside of Cairo are more concerned with the economy and security than religious issues.

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An Egyptian anti-military protester flashes the sign for victory during a demonstration in Cairo on May 6, 2012. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

FIDIMIN, Egypt — This sleepy farming hamlet is where Omar Abdel Rahman, an extremist sheikh now serving time in US federal prison for conspiring to blow up the World Trade Center, gave some of his first fiery sermons.

But even as Egypt’s political Islamists rise to power following last year’s ousting of an oppressive secular dictator, Fidimin is breaking with its fundamentalist past, giving way to a more diverse and nuanced political landscape ahead of the May 23 presidential election.

While many view the area — poor, rural and conservative, in the fertile Fayoum governorate southwest of Cairo — as a perennial and monolithic bastion of Islamist strength, its residents’ politics are in fact colored as much or more by economics and security as they are by its Islamic fundamentalist past.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won 44 percent of the Fayoum vote in the country’s first free parliamentary elections last year, followed by the ultra-conservative Islamist Al Nour party, which garnered 29 percent.

But as the Brotherhood-dominated parliament’s popularity slumps, and the Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, proves uninspiring, the presidential race so far seems up-for-grabs, even in this rural countryside.

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“We are hoping for a candidate that understands our problems,” said 31-year-old Atef Atta, a cashier at a Fidimin pharmacy and member of the Coptic Christian minority here.

Population figures for the area are hard to come by, but residents say there are 60,000 people in Fidimin, a district center of sorts, and its eight satellite villages roughly 2 hours drive from Cairo. Some 5,000 are Christians, according to locals.

“The [Muslim] Brotherhood, they are the best organized here, but Amr Moussa is the best candidate politically,” Atta said. “I believe that [Abdel Meneim] Aboul Fotou really cares about the people.”

Amr Moussa is a liberal-secular candidate and former minister of foreign affairs. He is seen as a liberal bulwark against mounting Islamist clout, though his posters were, uncharacteristically, seen plastered on the gates of a Fidimin mosque.

Abdel Meneim Aboul Fotouh, expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood when he announced his bid for the presidency last year, is a moderate Islamist presidential candidate who opposes imposing Islamic law. In a surprise, two ultra-conservative Islamist groups recently endorsed Fotouh.

Both candidates are the presidential contest’s top front-runners.

“Nobody here is interested in the armed struggle,” said the outwardly Islamist dean of Fidimin’s sparse central hospital, Dr. Abdul Barat Abdul Hamid. He lived in the area in the 1980s and 1990s, when Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman was helping forge an anti-government Islamist insurgency here.

“There is the [Islamist] history of the region, but it gives us a bad image,” he said. “Islam in this district is very moderate. We are a peaceful people.”

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At the forefront of most people’s concerns here is not Islamic law — in fact, few even mention it — but the need to resuscitate an ailing national economy that has left them even more impoverished, and to halt growing insecurity and drug use.

Some locals express support for presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq, who, though handicapped by ties to the old regime, is seen as strong on security because of his military background.

“People are desperate here. There are more people smoking hash and turning to crime,” said 28-year-old Mikail Ishaq, who sells beans along the dusty, pot-holed road that serves as Fidimin’s central market. “It’s becoming a problem. But if they had work, they wouldn’t be doing these things.”

Fidimin — with its expanse of mango, olive and lemon groves, and proximity to a majestic lake popular with domestic tourists — was once one of Egypt’s most crucial breadbaskets and travel destinations.

But occupants now describe an increasingly difficult life of searing poverty, marked by chronic bread and cooking-gas shortages. Many of Fidimin’s shops are shuttered — closed for good, shopkeepers say.

Former Fidimin residents who had previously left the village for places like Sharm Al Sheikh, a vast and lucrative resort town on the Red Sea, to work in Egypt’s once-booming tourism sector, were forced to return to a sickly Fidimin after foreign-tourism rates plummeted.

Across the Fayoum governorate, including Fidimin, remittances from Egyptian relatives living abroad — in oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates — account for nearly half of total household income, according to the International Organization for Migration.

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Farmers and laborers are looking for ways out.

At the local public hospital, which hosts just 52 beds and one ambulance for a community of 100,000, doctors say mite infestation and intestinal ailments are rampant in Fidimin due to poor infrastructure and hygiene.

But they are trying to remake medical assistance in the spirit of the revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak in a bid to fight injustice and corruption.

Six months ago, doctors at the hospital staged their own mini-revolt, expelling the former regime-appointed administration and demanding more employee rights.

“Here, the people think the revolution is just people yelling and destroying things in Cairo,” said the hospital’s chief surgeon, Dr. Abdel Rahman Al Banna.

“We want the patients to feel like the revolution has improved services and not contributed to their deterioration,” he said. “This is why I feel Aboul Fotouh is the best candidate. He was a doctor and he has seen the people suffering. He will know how to change things for the better.”

Heba Habib contributed reporting from Fidimin, Egypt.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/egypt/120510/rural-egypt-breaks-from-its-islamist-past