MINYA, Egypt – The desert road south from Cairo to Minya, a well-paved army highway in a country where potholes and cracked pavements make speedy driving a roller-coaster ride of dips and jolts, curves in from the barren east, leading the driver through a dour vista of limestone quarries and half-built suburban apartment blocks -- New Minya, a sign proclaims -- before giving way abruptly to fertile green fields, palm trees, and the dusty alleys of the city proper.
Minya, a city of perhaps 300,000, marks a border of sorts between the comparatively cosmopolitan bustle of the north -- Cairo, Alexandria, the Nile Delta -- and the traditionally more tribal Upper Egypt of Asyut, Sohag, Qina, and Aswan to the south.
Well-established, moneyed families, many of whom by necessity allied themselves with the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), still hold much sway here, and the city itself, the seat of the Minya governorate, is a busy hub for industry. Minya's factories refine local sugar cane and produce cement and other materials, including the white limestone brick ubiquitous in the area's cheaper buildings.
Outside the city's few main streets, Minya's countryside is dominated by lush farmland and dotted by hamlets, the province of Egypt's agricultural labor class, the fellaheen. Coptic Christians, estimated at around 10 percent of the Egyptian population, are heavily represented here, comprising perhaps a third of the governorate's 4.7 million people and a majority in some villages.
Under Egypt's three-stage system for electing its first post-revolution parliament, which begins Nov. 28, Minya will vote in the final group, on Jan. 3. It will account for 24 of the 498 representatives delivered to the new People's Assembly.
In January and February, while the world fixated on Cairo's Tahrir Square, Minya had its own revolution. Patches of well-maintained graffiti still cover downtown walls, and the main square -- once named for Suzanne Mubarak, the ex-president's wife and a Minya native -- is now called Martyrs' Square.
But as seemed to be the case in other midsize towns outside Cairo, Minya's revolution was different. Protests were small and kept in check by the security forces, residents told me, and nobody remembered any serious violence. Kerolos Emad Abeid, the 17-year-old son of a Christian farmer and political candidate, said he and his friends stayed home during the protests, preferring to use days of school closures to study for their exams.
Although Minya's Christian population makes it a demographic outlier, the city and surrounding countryside pose a bellwether question: How much has Egypt really changed outside the big cities?