I recently returned from a trip to Cairo and Sohag, a town in rural “Upper Egypt” along the Nile. I have traveled to Egypt before, but this time my visit fell during the lead-up to the first-round of Egypt’s historic parliamentary elections and fresh tensions and unrest in Tahrir Square. The air was electric, and the mood on the street seemed both eager and anxious. And I was handed a special opportunity to hear and witness first-hand how USAID’s assistance is making an impact in two very different parts of the country – the sprawling, urban capital and the rural, agricultural region around Sohag.

The elections on November 28 drew the attention of the world. We all saw images of voters lined up in the rain, waiting to cast their ballots, seizing the promise of freedom to choose future leadership that a democratically run process offers. While in Cairo, I met with some of USAID’s partner organizations, who are working to support voter education, election monitoring and training of interested political parties to run transparent, effective campaigns.

Like elections at home, the campaign season in Egypt has involved much discussion about the need for more and better jobs. Greater economic opportunities have been a common refrain from those protesting in Tahrir Square and the many more beyond. I met with representatives from the Egyptian business community, including members of the Egyptian National Competitiveness Council, to talk about the increasingly challenging economic situation, the importance of more effective education and training for young Egyptians entering the workforce, and the ways that the U.S. can be most helpful in this arena.

In speaking with representatives of some women’s groups, including UN Women and the USAID-funded project Combating Violence against Women and Children, I learned of additional concerns facing Egyptian women even as they advocated with their brethren for economic and political reform in the new post January 25th era. For example, some who are barely managing with work outside the home now, worry that in a faltering economy, they will lose their positions, and be relegated to subsistence existence and the dependencies that ensue. Among other activities, these groups work to increase public awareness and improve services that protect and assist women and children who suffer from domestic abuse.

Leaving behind the frenzy of Cairo, I traveled to Sohag, a key city in rural Upper Egypt, where I announced a $11 million program that will finance small-scale infrastructure activities, creating thousands of jobs and providing water and wastewater services for people in the poorest areas of Egypt. I visited families who had running water in their homes for the first time ever through this program, which is also expected to create 240,000 labor-days of employment and improve household water and sanitation services for more than 600,000 Egyptians living in the governorates of Beni Suef, Minya, Assuit, Sohag, Qena, Luxor, and Aswan. While in Sohag, I also met with members from agricultural associations to discuss USAID support for helping to expand farmers’ access to markets and increase income for smallholder farmers.

Finally, I was privileged to tour the Red Monastery, a famous Coptic monastery in Sohag. Since 2002, USAID has provided funding to clean and conserve wall paintings in the monastery church, renovation work that is now almost complete. This effort is an excellent illustration of how USAID is helping to preserve Egypt’s antiquities, part of its important and treasured history, while also improving the environment for tourism, a critical sector of the Egyptian economy.

Throughout my visit, I was struck by the range and breadth of the people of Egypt. Many with whom I spoke seemed to recognize the challenges in front of them, but were prepared to forge forward toward the opportunities that also lay ahead. On the night I departed Egypt one cabinet had resigned and it was not clear what was coming next. I write now, with the first round of elections completed, with renewed hope for the pragmatism and clear-eyed vision of the people of Egypt to see toward the horizon that is their better future, a future that USAID remains committed to supporting their efforts to achieve.

Visit USAID/Egypt’s Facebook page for more photos from Mara Rudman’s visit.