News In Brief

On rich and poor in Egypt…

Mitchell Hartman Feb 23, 2011

We hear a pounding drumbeat that ‘economic disparity’ is at the root of the peoples’ revolutions sweeping the Middle East. And it’s true, to a point; but the dynamic doesn’t play out the same everywhere. What passes for a lower-middle-class income in Saudi Arabia would be a pasha’s ransom in parts of Egypt — that’s why so many people from the poorer countries (Egypt, Jordan, Palestine) go to work in the richer ones (Kuwait, Libya, Abu Dhabi), and then send money home to their impoverished relatives.

In a poor country like Egypt — little oil to export and a large, young population heavily dependent on government subsidies for bread, cooking oil, public transportation — the stereotypical rich-poor divide doesn’t quite capture the deeper dynamic. You have to add the growing, struggling “middle” to really understand what’s going on — in the homes and out on the streets.

Make no mistake — Egypt is a place where ‘the rich are few and have much, the poor are many and have little.’ Forty percent of the population lives in abject poverty, subsisting on less than $2 a day. With the exception of Cairo — and its 15+-million inhabitants crammed into crowded tenements, spilling into the dusty streets, with nary a park or tree in sight — Egypt is mostly a country of small farms and villages strung along the fertile Nile Valley, the only part of the country that can be cultivated by irrigation. A sizeable portion of Egypt’s 80 million people make their living by servicing others in the Gulf’s oil industry, along the Suez Canal, or from tourism.

To this mix, then, add two potent catalysts.

First, a tiny, very wealthy elite. Some of them have derived their money and power from political connections, sweetheart deals, the right family name. For 30 years, they’ve plundered the public purse and stashed untold billions (really, no one has a clue how much) in domestic shares and foreign currency, gold bars and Liechtensteinian bank accounts.

Of course, not all the super-rich are super-bent. Many have made their money working for multinationals or in the professions as doctors and engineers. But whether crooked or not, they live a life far removed from the masses. They educate their young at private schools: American University Cairo or the London School of Economics. Many live behind security gates and elegant fences laced with barbed wire, in fancy new villa developments with manicured green lawns (this is a desert, remember) and a few BMWs parked in the driveway. I drove past several of these ‘new cities’ on the way to interview a successful telecom entrepreneur in his office tower; the reflection off the glass and steel hurt my eyes in the mid-day glare. Down the street, there’s a brand-new shopping center with plenty of parking, called the Mall of Arabia. Except for the donkey carts plodding down the highway’s slow lane, I could have been in Tallahassee or Tucson.

And then, sandwiched between the thin scum of super-rich floating at the top, and the thick layer of poorer-than-poor wallowing at the bottom, is a growing population swimming in the middle-urbane, wired, ambitious. It’s made up largely of young people born since Hosni Mubarak took power 30 years ago. These Egyptians have graduated from the country’s free public universities; many speak some English. They have education, wide knowledge of the world, technological and communication tools at their disposal: iPods and cellphones, Twitter and Facebook. And they graduate into a society, into a world, that doesn’t meet any of their life expectations. Not even close.

Except in a few fast-growing sectors like telecommunications, there are few jobs to be had. Their parents’ and grandparents’ generation has all the sinecures in public employment locked up — at the tourism and information ministries, the schools and universities, the phone company and state-owned banks. Those who can find work are often hired as temps or on short-term contract (sound familiar?). They get paid little: 1,200 Egyptian pounds a month (about $225) for the elementary school teacher I met marching toward Tahrir Square to protest his low wages; about the same for the woman arts-and-culture reporter at a Cairo daily (also on the picket line), and the cab driver who used to work in technology until he lost that job in the financial crisis.

Those with a family struggle to make ends meet as food and fuel prices rise. They try to work some angle on the side. Many, though, can’t afford to get married and raise a family. They can’t buy a house or furniture, let alone pay school fees for a brood of children. So they live at home, and smoke a lot, and share music and pictures and jokes with their multitudinous friends online. They meet each night to drink coffee and walk around.

And, until recently, to wait. On January 25, it seems, they stopped waiting. They took Tahrir Square instead. And wouldn’t leave until a government fell. They’re still there — at night, and every Friday — painting and sweeping the streets, announcing manifestos, organizing clean-up drives and tourism initiatives, and reminding their parents and grandparents who have all the jobs that they’re done waiting. Like a school of fish, they’ve suddenly all started swimming in one direction. And launched a tide. Watch out.

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