The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: Egypt's sorrowful class

Among all the many painful things Egypt has gone through in recent years – state violence, terrorism, oppression, a bitter political closing after the opening of 2011 – it may be the economic situation that is most sorely felt by the most people. The Sisi regime's grandiose plans – a new capital city, an expanded Suez Canal – are either in mothballs or have failed to deliver much-needed new revenue so far. The military is taking control of an increasing chunk of the economy, squeezing out the private sector that has driven much of the past 30 years of job and wealth creation (however skewed) and not doing much for the non-military public sector. (It's even creating its own private schools!) The chief victim of these policies, especially the ongoing devaluation of the Egyptian pound, is probably the middle class (because the poor are both less exposed to their impact as many subsistence goods are subsidized and because Sisi done more, even if it's not enough, on poverty alleviation and targeting the poorest in the country through cash handout programs and other measures).

In recent weeks, there has been a spate of writing in the Egyptian press about the struggling middle class – perhaps because it's back to school time, a moment in the year where families feel particularly pinched (especially if you want to avoid sending your kids to public school.) Tareq Hassan's column below is one of the better examples of this trend, which is so politically significant in the medium term to the Sisi regime. Defining the middle class is hard in terms of income (there are multiple layers), and one element of it is more about aspirations and class outlook than pure financials. In Egypt, I would argue there are three middle classes: the private sector middle class (currently losing out), the public sector middle class (stagnating) and the military middle class (accumulating privilege). They are not hermetically sealed from one another, but it does represent a shift, even reversal, of the trends of the Mubarak era.   

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The sad state of Egypt’s middle class

Tareq Hassan, al-Masri al-Youm, 11 September 2016

If you asked me which is the most discontented class in Egypt right now, I would immediately tell you it is the middle class — the broadest, largest and most extensive class in society.
If you asked me which class is the class of the future, without whom there will be no future in Egypt or for Egypt, I would tell you immediately: There is no other — it is the middle class in all its social components.
How is this class both the most discontented and the key foundation for progress and Egypt’s future?
Naturally, discontent prevails throughout the middle class. Its general situation is obvious. It is either being neglected or deliberately ignored as a topic of interest. The prevailing political rhetoric discusses “low-income people” without specifying their precise social position and with a chronic complaint about not being able to reach them. Meanwhile, the current media discourse focuses on aversion and skepticism toward the rich and prosperous classes and personalities.
But where is the middle class?
It is not present in the binary of “low-income” and “wealthy.” How is it that it is not a point of focus or a pivot of speech and action in social and political rhetoric? This is the class that pays its own way — the class that studies with its own money and gets medical treatment with its own money.
It is the class where most might use public transport only rarely. It it the class where some may appear to be among the wealthy but are in reality blameless and decent people.
It is the class where, if one has a large or necessary obligation, he will take a loan from a bank or participate in an “association” with a set date to fulfill the obligation.
It is the class in which, if one individual is afflicted with a serious illness, they sell everything they own for his treatment.
It is the class that buys on installment plans and takes out bank loans, that has a Visa card balance they pay back many times over in interest. It is the class where they do not have ration cards and do not eat subsidized bread, and the government withholds some of their taxes at the source.
In short, it is the class which carries out the role of the state for itself, by itself. Last but not least, it is the class upon whose shoulders falls all the economic measures and political and social burdens, and which has suffered irremediable hardships from January 2011 to today.
We are right to say: The middle class has become the undisputed weight-lifting champion of Egypt. It is also the class whose situation, unfortunately, is dealt with as it should not be — if not ignored altogether.
The middle class is the problem and the solution. It is the spark of revolutions, unrest and upheaval. It is also the key and the pillar of progress, modernity and development in our world. For example:

  • Since the end of the 1920s, the middle class has been the foundation and the pivot of the Egyptian nationalist movement in all political, economic, social and cultural spheres. Upon its shoulders, the Egyptians built their state under the British occupation. Then came national independence.
  • In the 1950s, Abdel Nasser had success with the middle class. He knew how to build a strong bloc from the middle classes with a clear identity.
  • Since the 1970s, with the implementation of market measures, the base of the middle class has widened and it has started down the path of development, capacity and private business.
  • By the year 2008, the Gini coefficient — the key measure of inequality adopted internationally — noted in a statement on the equity of wealth distribution across the world that the richest ten percent of Egyptian families received eight times more of Egypt’s Gross National Income than the poorest ten percent. This was one of the best rates at the time. The same report said that the richest ten percent of American families had 15 times as much as the poorest ten percent of families. Japan had the best internationally, with four times higher, and the worst was Bulgaria with 157 times higher. This means that the middle and upper classes in Egypt may include more than 70 percent of Egyptian families and that it had greater and deeper capabilities than many thought — to the extent that some car market experts believed that, at purchasing power parity, Egypt may be able to absorb more than 50,000 cars per month if offered at the prices of neighboring Arab countries. With a growth rate of 15 percent annually, it would be possible to sell a million cars a year by 2021.
  • In January 2011, the aspirations of the political and social middle class in Egypt exploded. They wanted to achieve their particular ambitions in a modern country with modern organization which was not under bureaucratic control. Their simple argument was: we want Egypt to be a country worthy of consideration, and we want to live as they live in the civilized world. January occurred as a social explosion, not a political movement with reason, capacity, organization, and a clear identity. This was the tragedy of the middle class and the story of its multifaceted and multidimensional losses and tragedies. Here it became a sorrowful class.
  • Now Egypt’s middle class has become 50 million angry people, in the words of a headline of a recent interview with General Abu Bakr el-Gendy, head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, in the weekly al-Mussawar magazine.

The problem is not the collapse of the social and economic situation of the middle class, nor the harsh government measures affecting their situation, although as a whole these do remain a problem. The main problem is in politics which have not reconsidered the middle class and its social and political centrality.
The problem remains in a politics that does not advance the status of the political, social, economic and cultural middle class, in order to advance the country.
Political thought and its public rhetoric have still not understood that the middle class erupted in the 25 January Revolution, brandishing its dreams and aspirations. The major problem now is that no one has rescued it or helped it back on to its feet after its dreams and aspirations were shattered, and that there is no solution but lifting it back up and thereby reviving the country.
The ambitions of the middle class are worthy of consideration. Nothing will achieve the ambitions of the middle class and return it to its rightful place except the systems of a modern state, the systems of political and social freedom, and the systems of a society that manages its own political and economic and social and cultural affairs.
There is no solution and no future in Egypt or for Egypt except in fostering and promoting the society’s middle class. Without it, the reckoning will be turmoil and loss.
Large segments of the middle classes and lower classes have begun to converge — they live in the slums and poor neighborhoods together, while the wealthy minority grows richer. In this severe social and political imbalance, danger lurks for the country.
The middle class is the source of balance in the country. Without it, there is no balance.
I ask God for forgiveness, for you and me.
Happy Eid al-Adha to all.