Even though he grew up poor and illiterate on a small farm at the end of an irrigation canal, Ahmed Fawzy knew from a young age that there was something unusual about his corner of the Nile Delta. During walks over a dirt track to Quesna, the district center, his father would point out the houses where various powerful politicians and military officials had been born. On Quesna’s outskirts, the landmarks would begin to come in thick and fast. “Prime Minister Ganzouri prayed here; [former Egyptian military chief Mohamed] el-Gamasy went to school there,” Fawzy, a 25-year-old mechanic, said in November, recounting his father’s encyclopedic knowledge of the area’s luminaries.
Menoufia, as Fawzy’s home region is known, has produced four of Egypt’s last five leaders. Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak number among the governorate’s native sons; though their families migrated to Cairo before they were born, so do current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Adly Mansour, the head of Egypt’s constitutional court, who served briefly as acting president after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Sedki Sobhi, the current minister of defense and one of Sisi’s potential successors, is a Menoufi, as is Ibrahim Mahlab, who served as Sisi’s prime minister until September 2015. The list of civilian and military figures who hail from this region is especially striking when you consider that Menoufia is Egypt’s seventh smallest governorate (out of 27) and its 11th most populous. “We breed presidents like other places make furniture,” Fawzy said, as a train barreled through Quesna’s small station.
Egyptians elsewhere have noted this peculiarity, too, making the region the butt of countless jokes. “Are you Menoufi?” Cairenes sometimes ask in jest when accusing friends of miserly or cunning behavior. But Menoufieen tend to regard their governorate’s achievements with pride. They also have some ideas about its sources. “Education and faith,” said Mohammed Makarem, a licorice juice vendor who works a busy stretch of the Cairo-Alexandria Agricultural Road outside Quesna. “These are our pillars, and allow us to thrive.”
VALLEY OF THE KINGS
The story of Menoufia’s outsized political influence begins in the late nineteenth century, when Abdel Aziz Fahmi Pasha, a prominent local liberal politician, resolved to improve the quality of schooling there. In the early 1890s, intent on breaking free from the British—who had occupied Egypt in 1882 and had restricted the state-funded educational opportunities available to Egyptians, in an apparent attempt to keep their new subjects easily governable—Fahmi persuaded a group of fellow Menoufi landowners to donate land for the construction of privately funded schools. By 1914, their organization, the Association of the Thanked Endeavors, was teaching around 15 percent of Egypt’s non-foreign students, and Menoufia had become one of the country’s best-educated governorates. Ibrahim Eissa, a prominent contemporary newspaper editor and opposition politician, attended one of the association’s schools, as did Mubarak, which is where he met one of his future interior ministers, Zaki Badr. In the years before Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers seized power in 1952, growing up in Menoufia offered a real advantage in a country where many schools were underfunded and understaffed. Even now, the percentage of students who continue their education after the age of 15 in Menoufia is higher than it is in most of Egypt’s other rural governorates, exceeding 80 percent in the first decade of this century.
In the years before Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers seized power in 1952, growing up in Menoufia offered a real advantage.
Nasser’s postrevolution reforms stripped the Association’s schools of their independence—and of much of their quality, locals say. But decades of superior education had positioned many Menoufieen to achieve prominence in Egypt’s new military order. Literate young men from the governorate enlisted and climbed the ranks in Nasser’s army so swiftly that they were overrepresented in the officer corps from the earliest days of Nasser’s rule. That early success appears to have persuaded even more young men from Menoufia to seek the wealth and status that military careers offered. “If you’re from Quesna, and you see X, who’s also from Quesna, in his general’s uniform, you might try to join [the military], too,” said Samuel Tadros, a political scholar, historian, and native Menoufi who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Menoufia’s close ties to the military have survived, even if its high-quality, independent schools have not. In Egypt’s 2012 presidential election, a higher percentage of voters in Menoufia backed Ahmed Shafik, the former air force commander who narrowly lost that contest to Morsi, than in any other governorate. The same was the case when Menoufi voters supported Sisi, another former general, for president two years later.
FROM STUDENTS TO MASTERS
Despite its legacy of high-quality schools and the number of prominent political and military figures it has produced, Menoufia remains deeply impoverished. The governorate is one of just two in Egypt that lacks access to sparsely populated desert land that can be irrigated and reclaimed; unable to expand its farmland, its mostly agrarian economy has suffered as its population has grown. Menoufia’s residents live in homes smaller than the national average, and the governorate has among the lowest number of hospital beds per capita in Egypt.
And so the third source of Menoufia’s success appears to have been the prolific outmigration of its inhabitants, who have historically moved elsewhere at higher rates than have those of other governorates. In nearby Cairo, former Menoufi farmers and their families dominate entire neighborhoods, particularly in the industrial Shubra el-Kheima district. (Further afield, many of New York’s famous halal hot dog stands are supposedly manned by Menoufieen.) Migration has alleviated some of the pressure on the governorate and created opportunities for those who leave it.
Egypt is mired in an economic crisis that shows few signs of relenting. The middle class is panicking as prices for imported products rise; the poor suffer amid a shortage of staple goods such as sugar and baby formula. In many provinces, Sisi’s popularity has tumbled along with the value of the Egyptian pound. If Menoufia’s history is any guide, the governorate will remain more loyal to the country’s leaders than most.