'The end': Poverty bites in remote Egyptian village

Al-Nehaya (مصر) (AFP) –


The name of the remote Egyptian village Al-Nehaya sounds much like the Arabic word for "the end", which is sadly fitting given the grinding poverty endured by most of its people.

Years of political and economic turmoil since the 2011 Arab Spring have worsened hardship in a country where one in three people live below the poverty line.

One of them is 75-year-old Hanem al-Zanati, who, sitting under the straw roof of her bare-brick home, talked about life in the destitute settlement of 10,000 people in the remote Upper Nile region.

"All I want is a fridge and a small bed," she said, as if these objects were fantastic luxuries.

Zanati has a broken wrist but said she can't afford to see a doctor because her husband's pension comes to just 700 Egyptian pounds ($43) a month.

Nehaya lacks its own health care centre as well as a middle or secondary school, a reliable water or electricity supply or a sewage system.

Most people survive on hardscrabble agriculture, growing mostly maize and wheat, here in Assiut province, Egypt's poorest, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) south of Cairo.

With typical day wages around 80 pounds, or $4, many have abandoned the village in search of better lives in urban centres such as Alexandria and the mega-city of Cairo.

- 'Beyond bad' -

Many tourists and investors have shunned Egypt since the upheaval that overthrew long-time president Hosni Mubarak. Since 2014, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has ruled.

A sharp fall in the pound has driven up costs of everyday goods, the pain made worse by austerity measures in line with demands from the International Monetary Fund.

There may be simmering discontent but few open expressions of anger in a country with a massive, feared security apparatus and overcrowded prisons.

The poverty rate among Egypt's 100 million people jumped to 32.5 percent last year, up from 27.8 percent in 2015, says official statistics agency CAPMAS.

The government has launched family income support programmes such as the 2014 "Solidarity and Dignity" initiative, which targeted more than nine million people.

In July, Sisi launched another plan for those in most need called "Decent Life".

The residents of Nehaya say state officials from the project came to visit the village, promising to build a new school and to restore old houses.

But so far, little has been done and conditions have remained the same, they say.

"Conditions here are beyond bad," said a 20-year-old public servant in Nehaya's only elementary school.

Pupils use "dilapidated seats" and there are not enough teachers, she said.

- 'No progress' -

Near the rickety elementary school building, mayor Gamal Thabet was sitting on a simple wooden bench.

"Officials from the 'Decent Life' initiative visited, inspected homes and reviewed the demands," he told AFP. "But nothing has changed so far."

In the village "there is only one elementary school, and the bakery's products do not cover the needs" of the population, he said.

Unable to afford transport to schools outside the village, families have long called for the allocation of land to build their own middle or secondary school, he added.

Khaled Abdel Nasser, head of the presidential initiative in Assiut, blamed the delayed aid on red tape.

But he insisted the project is on track in Nehaya, saying that "all those in need have been identified... and a plot has been allocated for the school building".

Elsewhere in the village, 31-year-old Mohamed Mustafa appeared troubled as he stood outside his small grocery shop, where goods lay on dusty shelves.

"My family and I live in a run-down house," said the father of five, leaning against a window to ease his back pain.

"All I need is two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom.

"I get a 400 pound (about $25) in (social) allowances but it is not even enough for my back treatment."

Behind the village school stand two unfinished buildings, one of them a mosque.

A sign asking for donations reads: "with God's blessing the mosque of Sayyidina al-Hussein is under construction in Nehaya village".

"There has been no progress in construction for four months," said one villager. "Nobody has the money."