The madame's story: renegotiating Cairo’s informal service sector

The Egyptian Government’s anti-terrorism measures are causing subtle but significant shifts in Cairo’s vibrant informal service sector - illustrated through the experiences of one middle-class resident and her long-serving part-time cleaner. Read part one of this two-part article: The maid's story.

Leila Zaki Chakravarti
11 March 2015

Part Two: The madame's story

Part one of this two-part article described the experiences of Fadila, a part-time cleaner for Cairo’s more affluent classes. One of her clients is Kawsar, a middle-class widow living her retirement in a small flat in a concrete block in one of the many new developments on the sandy northern fringes of Cairo out near the airport. She is effusive in stating her dependence on Fadila’s twice-weekly visits:

‘Fadila is my Number One (same words in Arabic)! I can’t do without her. She took off once – not sure if it was because of a car crash or some sickness in the family – and left me stranded. For two whole months I had to make do with a stream of temporary replacements: all were useless – one of them even (hooting with laughter) made off with my brazierres (bras)! Every time I moved my head something went missing!’

Kawsar supplements her civil service pension and her late husband’s military pension with the rent from their former flat in a more prosperous part of town, which she now lets to private tenants. With alleged Muslim Brotherhood ansheta (‘goings on’) bubbling up all over the city, Kawsar is in effect largely housebound – and heavily dependent on delivery boys from the grocery, pharmacy and other local shops which she can now only access by telephone order. Before the revolution service providers who bitkhabatu ‘al bab (“knock on the door”), such as delivery boys, electricity or water meter readers etc, were part and parcel of the middle-class urban lifestyle – their visits to private residences were considered convenient as many shops made their business ‘local’ by providing free delivery services for goods purchased in person. Now, however, Kawsar sees that, as a result of the general infilat unleashed by the revolution, these services have become a necessity rather than a convenience.

The Arabic word infilat is also used by Fadila (see Part I): but where her use of the term is centred on her increasing struggle to find cash, Kawsar uses the term to describe the unleashing by the 2011 uprising of dark forces leading to a breakdown in the proper social order, with the collapse of deference by the urban poor towards their economic and social betters, and its replacement by an often violent grabbing of previously out of reach goods and riches. The sense of utter social and moral breakdown that Kawsar is invoking by use of the word infilat echoes its relentless repetition in official and private media, all effusive in their support of the Army’s intervention and its self-styled harb did el-erha (‘War Againt Terrorism’).

In the state-supported media narrative, what the elected Muslim Brotherhood Government of President Morsi caused was the ‘bursting out’ (iflat – from the same root as infilat) of nothing less than a state of complete anomy, with no moral or social principles remaining in either individuals or society. Equally relentlessly repeated in the official narrative is how President Sisi’s Government is firmly and unflinchingly battling infilat and replacing it with istikrar (stability), the word invoking a ‘done and dusted’ sense of a previously contested issue or situation having been permanently ‘sorted out’, settled once and for all. So where TV programmes over the first two years of the revolution had focused on uncovering corruption (state and individual) ‘in high places’, now the emphasis has switched dramatically towards ‘investigative reports’ in which TV cameras regularly prowl poorer neighbourhoods said to have a history of drug dealing, prostitution, homicide, suicide, fraud – their lurid allegations extending to institutions long respected for their time-honoured role in caring for the disadvantaged and dispossessed eg of human trafficking in orphanages and state hospitals.

Increasing media sensationalism in such reports purportedly ‘exposing Egypt’s social problems’ invariably suppresses any mention of terms such as ‘the needy’, ‘the poor’, or ‘victims’ previously used for empathetic categorisation of the vulnerable in society. Instead what takes place is a ruthless criminalisation of all poor/working class lives, with their unleashed lust for instant cash and material possessions the only cause given for families plunging themselves into vicious cycles of criminality and despair. In this narrative the accusation that the less advantaged are now ‘taking the law into their own hands’ is not framed as part of any ‘politics of redress’ (to use Asef Bayat’s phrase for how the urban poor are to be understood as stealing from the rich in order to lead dignified lives), but rather as the urban poor empowering themselves with the impunity to grab resources previously claimed only by the rich and powerful and to live ‘beyond their means’.

In the face of this relentless media bombardment it is not surprising that residents of more affluent neighbourhoods speak of the place outside their immediate home as ‘mish zay il- awil’ (not like before) in the sense of hostile, threatening. Relatives and friends I visited spoke of the ‘confusion’ of people wandering around ‘without regard to anyone,’ the ‘dark spirit to occupy people’s hearts,’ the ‘crazy’ driving in the streets, the ‘decadence of appearances’. They described how the ‘loss of values that once defined the essence of Egypt’ had been forfeited in favour of increased signs of ‘atheism’ and ‘promotional self-interest’, the ‘obsession with money’ resulting in the ‘bad smell in neighbourhoods’ which were formerly areas of elegance and ‘style’. Current tensions between the social classes are encapsulated in the complaint from many friends and relatives to whom I spoke (all members of the more affluent classes) that the forcible seizure of resources by the underclass constitutes a deep violation of established social boundaries, so that their rights as citizens have been undermined by infilat.

Their personal fears and worries are channelled into their closest engagements with possible representatives of the newly defined ‘hostile other’, namely the service workers who bitkhabatu ‘al bab, or – even more threatening – those who are already ‘inside the walls’. Kawsar gives a vivid account of these fears through the story she tells me of the bawab (doorman) of her apartment block, and her frequent visitor and long-time friend Roza:

‘Roza is the type you find in almost any Cairene social circle, a social butterfly who speaks her mind. Because of old ties to many in the building, she often displays proprietorial airs when visiting, blurting out sweeping pronouncements, such as declaring that some watermelon peels the bawab had left littering the entrance would cause an outbreak of the plague. On her last visit, she loudly told the bawab to his face that he wasn’t up to the job. This time, though, something totally unexpected happened. On her way out Roza found herself trapped by members of his family. The women knocked her to floor by the main sewage drain, pulled her veil off, and publicly gave her a humiliating beating. It was nothing short of savagery. There were leaping on her buttocks yelling obscenities, and grabbing her hair to knock her forehead on the drain. And their children – they’re all under ten! - were mimicking Roza’s cries for help. It was as if they were possessed! She was then abandoned to sort herself out. Her son came to her rescue, and they headed to the local Police Station. The neighbours she’d just been with, and whose interests she’d seen herself as defending as a matter of haq (moral/religious right), were contacted to back up her story as witnesses. In such circumstances it is of course fard ‘ayyn (a religious necessity) to show your mettle. But did anyone step forward? It was as if the incident never took place. The neighbours ran scared. Unbelievable - but true. It shows il-balad bazitt (the country’s collapsed).’

Shrugging her shoulders as if there’s nothing else to say on the point, Kawsar goes on to tell me how Roza has severed all communication and disappeared – and how the building’s residents, mostly middle-aged widows and housewives, have had to revise their dealings with their immediate social environment by ostracising the bawab and his family:

“They colonize the two rooms at the back - leaving the backyard in a filthy condition. We are a powerless lobby in this block and if anything needs doing, we have to pay someone else to sort it out. He lives like the ‘ultra’ rich now – immune from us bothering him with any requests. This is now a source of deep resentment for all of us.”

This unsettling vignette of a violently confrontational incident in a middle class Cairene neighbourhood elicited neither surprise nor shock from other contacts to whom I spoke. Their ‘nothing out of the ordinary’ tone of neutrality exemplifies how, in the current climate of violence and social indifference, emotions of denial and fear are welded into responses to different forms of social tensions involving violence, and the collapse of social boundaries between classes co-existing in close proximity – and how, as individual experiences of previously tranquil neighbourhoods unravel in the face of more intimidating experience, levels of aggressive behaviour in the local landscape now appear to be accepted facets of Egypt’s internal state of infilat.

A common response to the intricate calculations underlying the politics of fear involves new measures taken to keep conflict at bay, and simultaneously to bolster concepts of privilege and immunity by protecting core assets that identify class position. ‘Security’ has become a powerful trope for the introduction of market-led innovations, with commercial contractors installing metal grilles and gates on residences, and providing armed bodyguards or all-night surveillance. Other market innovations capitalise on mobility/security issues and the fears the affluent classes have developed of venturing out into ‘threatening’ public space, by providing digital (web and/or smartphone) ‘summon on demand’ services such as couriers for the transfer of all kinds of goods (ranging from mundane tasks such as collecting cakes from a patisserie at the other end of town, to major issues such as the transfer of serious sums of cash) in which nothing more than the exchange of receipts is required; cabs on demand (including an ultra-exclusive London Cab company that emulates the British system even in the vehicles it provides); cleaning companies that market their services as a ‘one-day spring clean’; as well as on-line medical consultations offering diagnosis via satellite.

The effectiveness of these schemes, which are the prerogative of digital users and the moneyed classes, is based on reducing all forms of ‘familiarity’ associated with dependency relations of a mixed social order. Each service is deliberately structured to replace the informal sector’s previously personalized relationships – which have now become threatening – with impersonalised (and therefore non-threatening) formal commercial services. As with the ‘each according to his means’ plethora of privatised transport services that cause Fadila such difficulty, it seems that the neoliberal market operates by invoking a system of separate legally ranked categories of customers in which membership is based on the ability to pay as a marker of differentiated privileges. And the end result of these schemes is to cement a lifestyle in which the fortification of residences and class privileges are spoken of as bubbles, the English word being taken directly into Arabic usage to describe your self-contained universe of assets regarded as tangible expressions of class gains. Its most conspicuous badge of distinction is to side-step the ‘informal’ and personalized contact of social interaction in the guise of a more up-dated ‘service sector’ (so that if working classes are brought in, these are directly monitored by a ‘third party’) - even if these outsourcing measures intensify the inequality gap and the segmentation of society more aggressively.

Since the new service businesses that cater to keeping these bubbles up and running by ‘doing professionalism’ to ‘high standards’ are inevitably more costly than the informal services they have displaced, the search for increased levels of security involves the digital and moneyed classes in a constant search for more cash, just as is the case for remaining informal service providers such as Fadila. Thus employers now share a similar predicament to the cleaners they hire, and have come to possess a more guarded view of their assets. Whereas previously employers would have given their service providers not only a sympathetic ear, but also often informal loans or other financial support, now the everyday becomes a site in which the negotiation of powers, rights and vulnerabilities is articulated through careful calculations established between employer and employee that aim to keep the power balance between conflicting interests from reaching an adversarial state of infilat.

For this reason, employers have resorted to ‘appeasement and control’ strategies that avoid the direct exchange of cash. Common measures include offering a ‘full breakfast’ and an endless supply of ‘snacks’ (same word used in Arabic) and drinks throughout the cleaner’s visit; or producing packed lunch-boxes for her dependents (eg her ailing mother) to secure their assistance if the helping hand ‘rebels’. Other ‘control’ tactics include intensifying daily surveillance by listening in on a cleaner’s private calls, so as to be able to predict forthcoming problems, and assess in advance their likely consequences for the employer’s interests. Employers now find it in their interest to mirror the strategies of those less equal in the social hierarchy, for example declaring that they are themselves hard pressed and in a tight financial corner, or that ‘lending cash’ is now contingent on the permission (unlikely, in such straitened economic times, to be given) of more senior members of the family. Sometimes these measures extend to almost comical performances of ‘living tightly’, such as ensuring that delivery of pharmacy pills (imparting notions of ill-health and ailments) take place on the day when the help is around - while at the same time only ordering the weekly delivery of food supplies, sticky desserts and take-away meals after she has safely left.

It goes without saying that the reduction of cash support in favour of in-kind support merely heightens the daily financial struggles of informal services workers such as Fadila – as does the threat to her livelihood from the new formal, digital competition. Yet one response which she and Kawsar share in common is their strong conviction that, in the face of general infilat, it is the new regime of President Sisi which alone can put things right. Kawsar finds immense reassurance from the daily media stream of images of the army and police fighting terrorists in Sinai, sealing off neighbourhoods of Cairo to uproot bad elements, or digging the new Suez Canal as shuhada il waqib (‘martyrs to duty’) – heroic rigal (‘real – ie macho – men’) embodying Egypt’s new militarised, patriotic determination to defeat the causes behind the rampant ‘state of lawlessness and chaos’, and restore a state of social order.

Hawk insignia

Social media graphic: “Egyptian Soliders are ragal" (real - ie macho – men)These media images, which frequently complement the violence of Roza’s predicament by graphically showing the killing or wounding of soldiers and policemen, are understood not as revealing continuing social tensions, but rather as testament to the lengths to which the current regime is prepared to go in order to achieve istikrar. And as in TV phone-ins and chat shows, the flow of conversation increasingly invokes infilat to condemn Egypt’s uprising, and confirm the restoration of the former social order as the only remedy to the mayhem surrounding their lives.

Graphic of a militarised police officer with gun

“I support my country’s Army and Police against terrorism - May Allah protect Egypt’s Army, Police and people!”Kawsar is emphatically in support of the general mood:

Il-ikhwan il-muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood) turned out to be il-ikhwan il mugrimin (a brotherhood of gangsters, criminals): and these demons still won’t give chaos a rest. After Mubarak’s downfall, I first joined hands with other voices that said we were in good hands because the Brotherhood bikhafu rabbina (fear God). Out of this misplaced trust came a nest of liars and cheats! I’m not giving in to the wishful thinking you see around you – the misguided youth with their banners and their four-finger Rab’a signs. I deal with what I have under my belt as solid facts. The facts say we had a presidential election this summer, a written constitution, and that Sisi is Head of State. The Egyptian state is back - and the army, a known entity, represents istikrar. Now we can get back to business.’

As both women negotiate the turbulent waters of infilat and istikrar, they are equally strong in their support for the new ‘tough love’ approach of the Sisi regime (albeit for different reasons) – and, like most other Cairo residents, feel an increasing sense of individual isolation penetrating the social fabric of family, neighbourhood and community.

Read part one of this two part article: The maid's story.


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