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Egypt: the surreal painting

About the author
Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)

Egypt's current state resembles a surrealist painting. It is difficult to decipher its components, challenging to comprehend its meaning. At the centre of the painting there are dark, abrasive lines; most onlookers would see them depicting anger, frustration and occasionally menace. At the peripherals, there are softer lines, perhaps symbols of potential and promise.

The sharp lines are the result of three major social phenomena that shape Egypt's current experience: inequality, demographics, and culture.

The social chasm

The first phenomenon is suffocating inequality.Tarek Osman is a writer and a merchant banker.  Also by Tarek Osman in openDemocracy:

"Egypt: who's on top?" (7 June 2005)

"Egypt's crawl from autocracy" (30 August 2005)

"Hosni Mubarak: what the Pharaoh is like" (16 January 2006)

"Can the Arabs love their land?" (22 May 2006)

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

"Arab Christians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

"Risk in the Arab world: enterprise vs politics" (9 November 2007)

"Nasser's complex legacy" (15 January 2008)

"Egypt's football triumph" (13 February 2008)


Egypt has always been characterised by severe inequality between its "upper crust" and those millions of people who struggle to survive. This was especially clear in the period before the 1952 coup; then, the privileged classes - the pashas and beks, the cotton and wheat millionaires, the colonial bourgeoisie; and most foreigners in the country enjoyed lives vastly different from the toil of the men and women in the villages of the Nile delta and the Saiid (upper Egypt), or in the rougher neighbourhoods of Cairo and Alexandria.

The sweeping promise of the early years of Gamal Abdel Nasser's era meant that the realities of material inequality were less evident. But in the late 1950s and the 1960s another dimension of inequality appeared: in the influence and access of ahl al-theqa (the trusted elite, drawn from the military and intelligence corps), factors which allowed this elite to float untouchably over the rest of society (see "Nasser's complex legacy", 15 January 2008).

In the 1970s (the decade of Anwar Sadat) and the 1980s (under Hosni Mubarak, who became president after Sadat's assassination in October 1981), the ostentatious symbols of a new class of wealthy business people created a revived awareness of endemic social inequality on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. But the market-friendly policies of Sadat's mid-1970s infitah (open door) period also funnelled a degree of prosperity even to distant towns and villages. Even some of those on modest incomes became beneficiaries of the infitah and were able to buy French-made shirts and perhaps cars, and to realise that watches had other uses than telling the time.

The landscape of inequality in this period was thus more subtle, offering a certain amelioration of the absolutes. The broad dispersal of Egypt's then 25 million-35 million people across the numerous cities, towns and villages of the country allowed the "haves" and "have-nots" for a time to share the same world, to "see" each other - before they retreated, each to their own environs.

This interlude was brief. The late 1990s and the 2000s saw a complete change. An era of intense demographic concentration has resulted by 2008 in a population of around 81.7 million. The change is highlighted by Cairo's metamorphosis into a city of 18 million people, where neighbourhoods of vast wealth are a few minutes' walk from alleyways of crushing poverty. The rich and poor were forced to do more than peek at each other, interact briefly, then withdraw to their enclaves; now, they were living in such proximity that awareness of the other was constant and unavoidable. In Cairo, and to a lesser extent Alexandria, Egypt's urban citizens were crammed together - Zamalek's swanky night-spots next to decayed public housing; Mohandeseen's shiny boutiques next to the deprived Meit Okba area; a Porsche Cayenne cruising next to a minibus with twenty people packed together in Cairo's burning heat.

In principle, inequality could have been seen as a "natural" by-product of a growing economy where some social strata (typically because of privileged background or education) manage to exploit emerging opportunities, while other (far larger) lose out. This, as it were "academic", view had elements of the truth. But it could not disguise a stronger undercurrent of feeling among millions of Egyptians (indeed, probably a majority): that the elite, the upper crust, the wealthy, the "haves", do not deserve to be so.

The point is illustrated by a scene in Tito, a smash-hit Egyptian film of 2005. In one scene, the leading young actor Ahmed El-Sakka waves his hands in protest about being labelled a thief and shouts - referring to the people around him at a plush golf resort, including elegantly dressed women, with luxury cars in the background - "but they are all thieves"! The cinema audiences erupted in clapping at the line.

The Egyptian poor have a major trust problem regarding the country's rich. A key ingredient in this is simple, decades-old, and cataclysmic: corruption. In Egypt, corruption is both about large-scale transactions (the use of privatisation deals to make illicit wealth, say) and small-scale (paying low-level government employees a few dollars to expedite bureaucratic procedures). But its main feature (as most Egyptians see it) is that it is an institutionalised phenomenon that pervades almost every aspect of Egypt's socio-economic life: from the "caller" who helps park cars to the teacher who pushes students to sign for private lessons, from the policeman whose very uniform exudes intimidation to the judicial employee with sensitive case information, from members of parliament buying votes to ministers selling favours - all the way down to the beggars and scam-artists on the Cairo and Alexandria streets.

The Kifaya protest movement played on corruption's protean influence in the title of its 2005 report on the subject: "The black cloud is still here". The "black cloud" usually refers to a horrendous smog that hovers over greater Cairo every year when the residuals of the rice crop in neighbouring governorates are burned. Corruption is as suffocating, and - as with the other black cloud - the authorities do not seem to capable of clearing it.

The social chasm, the trust problem and the corruption dimension all focus attention on the Egyptian government's failings. The people who joked in the 1970s and 1980s about the government's five-year economic plans were by the late 1990s and 2000s tired, economically exhausted, and emotionally drained by a continued deterioration in their living standards. The reasons included the increasing pressures of Cairo's teeming population, the evaporation of job opportunities, and the social distance of the privileged elite from the rest of the population. All this contributed to the gradual transformation of Egyptians' characteristically sarcastic patience into boiling anger, reflected in the wave of strikes and protests that has swept the country in 2007-08.

Even these high-profile and widely reported events, however, may be less significant than the deeper shift in the attitude of the everyday Egyptian, who no longer reacts to the news of Egypt's economic progress - the building of a smart urban area, the issuance of a new GSM mobile licence at a breakthrough valuation, the purchase of a venerable Egyptian state bank - with an amused, sceptical "let's see". He or she is now more likely to be furious, questioning where the billions of dollars are going, why even a kilo of meat or a new pair of shoes has become unaffordable, while "they" enjoy their villas, cars, fancy clothes, and affluent lifestyles.

There are other sources of anger: incidents such as the drowning of a ferry en route from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, the use of contaminated blood in a couple of public hospitals, the collapse of a tower in Cairo's Nasser City.

The very closeness that Cairo life has imposed on Egyptians of starkly different incomes and life-chances has exacerbated the perception of the social gap, and dangerously aggravated the trust problem. The suffocating experience of inequality reflects the broken social contract. Here is a sharp line at the centre of the Egyptian painting, surrounded by menacing orange dots that suggest to the onlooker anger and frustration.

The generational choice

The second phenomenon at the centre of the Egyptian painting is the country's demographic reality, more particularly the condition of Egypt's young people.

More than 40 million Egyptians are under 35 years old. In 2006, around 8 million Egyptians applied for the American green-card lottery. In 2007, more than twenty young Egyptians drowned on perilous journeys toward the southern shores of Italy and Greece. In 2007-08, hundreds of thousands have demonstrated and rioted in 2007 for various causes. The picture is clear: young people are angry, disillusioned, and increasingly aggressive and belligerent.

Yet, young Egyptians are also full of promise. Most of them - especially in the country's big cities - have access to a TV and radio; are literate; have some basic knowledge of English; are relatively comfortable with new technologies, including the internet; and are (from a distance) aware of what happening in the advanced world. The more sophisticated and educated among them - the product of the substantial Cairene and Alexandrian middle class - also have a decent command of some of the essential skills required in today's modern economies. That is why a huge number of Egyptian engineers, doctors, accountants, lawyers and other professionals are employed in companies and institutions in the Gulf, as well as in the factories and offices of multinational companies in Egypt. The country has, by middle-eastern standards, an unrivalled base of talent and expertise.

The question posed to Egypt is whether the anger and frustration of its young will outweigh the potential of these qualities. An important variable in answering it will be how Egypt's socio-economic environment will develop. Will this environment embrace the rising generation's capabilities, facilitate and nurture them, or will it crush them? So far, the trends favour the latter. The tiny level of entrepreneurship, the ubiquitous corruption, the alienation of the best and brightest, the overarching sense of lost promise, the psychological "black cloud" - all these have been driving the talented to Europe, the United States, and the Gulf (see "Risk in the Arab world: enterprise vs politics", 9 November 2007).

Moreover, those in this category who choose or are obliged to stay in Egypt increasingly withdraw from the heart of the cities to a secluded life - they "belong" less and less to the life of their society. The well-paid telecoms engineer in his early 30s (and his friends - the IT consultant, the accountant at a leading local company, the sales executive in a multinational, the doctor) are increasingly drawn to the internet, to satellite dishes, and even the express-delivery service of Amazon UK. If his financial condition improves significantly, the immediate objective becomes a home in one of the new, rich and isolated suburbs of Cairo, from where he and his wife will send their small children to a new private school.

But most young people do not have these choices. Their domain - the crowded streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Al-Mahala, Tanta, and Asyuut or Egypt's smaller towns and villages - there is no private access to the internet or satellite dishes, no cultural exposure to the United States or Britain, and no chance of finding decent work in the Gulf or Europe. Only a few can free themselves from the circumstances of limited promise and ascend even to the margins of comfortableness. The majority are in the quagmire.

Most of these young Egyptians are still in their teens or 20s. They are still finding their way in life; they are tomorrow's news; the wager is still on regarding how they will shape their future. They are both angry and ambitious; pugnacious and dreamy; rioters against oppression and singers of Mohamed Mounir's romantic songs; the lines of resentment swirling up in their sheisha smoke yet their fast walking pace revealing their hunger for life. Theirs too is a sharp line in Egypt's trajectory, leaving the onlooker to guess whether it can delineate peaceful progress or violence and chaos.

The cultural contest

The third phenomenon shaping Egypt's current experience is the country's cultural pulse. Much of Cairo and Alexandria, and even more most of the delta's cities, are conservative places of strict behaviour codes. Since the early 1980s, the Islamic movement has won major battles in the war over Egypt's cultural identity. Egyptian liberalism is a stranded, weak movement; Arab nationalism is no stronger. Western, Mediterranean, Europe-influenced trends are tiny social currents that penetrate negligible groups at the society's fringes (even if many of these groups' members wield considerable spending power).

Today, books on the pleasures a devout Muslim will find in heaven or on athab al-kabr (the punishment of the grave) far outsell those on other themes - apart from books with a strong sexual content. Yet religion, the veil, the conservatism, the strictness, the moral puritanism - these are not (yet) the cultural identity of Egypt. Amr Khaled, Egypt's leading modern Islamic preacher, has a massive following; and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi's show on al-Jazeera is a must-see for millions. Yet the secular, liberal novelist Alaa al-Aswani is Egypt's bestselling author among the country's middle class; and the weekly TV show of the ultra-liberal Mohamed Hassanein Heikal still commands a great following.

The rising Islamic trend in Egypt's last quarter-century is a complicated process. At its heart have been three factors: the emigration of millions of Egyptians to the Gulf, at a time when the Gulf was super-conservative; Anwar Sadat's strategic decision to hand momentum to political Islam and allow it to gain ground in Egyptian society (especially in the trade unions, syndicates and universities); and the decline of Arab nationalism, from the 1970s to its near-humiliation in the 1980s and 1990s.

Much has changed. Today, the Gulf, especially its more shining parts, is more liberal than Egypt; and its petro-dollars no longer actively promote conservative doctrines to anything like the same degree as before. The Egyptian government has been fighting the current of political Islam for at least two decades. As for Arab nationalism, it has been weakened to such a level that it is irrelevant to today's dynamics.

The growth of political (and "social") Islam makes it by far the most powerful trend in today's Egypt. But it is not yet the winner. An observer of the painting will see clear green circles as well as sharp line in the painting's centre, but the Islamic crescent does not yet adorn them.

The pinnacle and the pit

Egypt, a rich civilisation with an ancient heritage and numerous links to cultures and traditions, is too complicated to be dominated by one line or colour. Thus, at the periphery of the painting are various structures, lines, and colours. Two are especially eye-catching, at the top and bottom respectively.

At the top, the decision-making process is shrouded in mystery. President Mubarak, in charge since October 1981, remains an absolute ruler. There is no doubt about his authority, ability to pull all strings, crush all challengers, and rule supreme. Yet a new power-elite headed by the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, has emerged since 2003; composed of a select group of business, economic, finance and media professionals, it has introduced a certain complexity into the high-level processes of state (see "Egypt's phantom messiah", 12 July 2006).

For example, the old guard that has long surrounded Mubarak (who turned 80 on 4 May 2008) has seemed increasingly detached from economic policy over the past five years; the new power elite looks more influential here. This is important, for economics is no longer "just" that; when global trends are increasingly economic rather than political or military, when countries' progress is measured in GDP per capita, when a worldwide food crisis has hit Egypt hard - then economic policy becomes central to both national security and political stability.

True, the state's security apparatus appears to continue to play a leading role in securing Egypt against any potential chaos internally, as well as operating in the country's traditional spheres of influence: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sudan, Lebanon, and the horn of Africa. Yet there is doubt over how far it is now integrated into the new power-elite.

Such a trend may be part of a wider dysfunction in the administrative and institutional order. Decision-making in Egypt has always been top-down, but traditionally, the pinnacle was clear - one man with absolute authority and clear lines of power beneath him. Today, the supreme power looks more diffuse, its movement less orchestrated.

The structure at the bottom of the painting is clearer. Some parts of Egyptian society are falling away, crushed underfoot or secreted now dark and miserable corners. The atfal al-shawari (children of the streets) is a prime example: thousands of young children without any kind of education, role-model, or future. They are not alone in their sadness. Many villagers, especially in upper Egypt, live in atrocious conditions; as do thousands of families in Cairo's and Alexandria's haphazard new neighbourhoods on the cities' al- ashwa'yat (margin).

The conditions of poorer urban-dwellers - overcrowded, with broken infrastructure, a lack of personal or emotional space, full of unwelcome intimacy and aggression - crush the souls of millions of Egyptians (see "Egypt: a diagnosis", 28 June 2007).

Egypt's lowest, forgotten social strata have missed the beat of the era. This is not unusual if they are compared to the same groups of people in sub-Saharan Africa or India or China. Yet this compounds the sadness, for Egypt has already had - and missed - many chances to pull up the millions left behind; and unlike India or China, Egypt's overall progress is not impressive enough in any way to make the picture of the lowest levels fade in the brilliance of the brightest.

All the lines and spots and colours of the Egyptian painting are linked, though it is still hard to discern a precise shape. The severe inequality; the promise and peril of the millions of young Egyptian men and women; the religious and cultural struggle for the country's soul; the opaqueness of power, authority and decision - all this means that the Egyptian surrealist painting is open to interpretation. From certain angles, it looks hopeful; from others, bleak. The canvas is open.


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