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The maid'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 two of this two-part article: The madame's story.

Leila Zaki Chakravarti
11 March 2015

Part I : The maid's story

 “The revolution is a nakba.”

 In Egyptian colloquial Arabic the word nakba carries a special charge and force. It is reserved for calamities, catastrophes, disasters of the worst imaginable depth and scale such as Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War. The speaker on this occasion is vehemently in support of the military takeover and subsequent election as President of former Field Marshal Abd El Fatah el-Sisi. She is a skilled working class woman who regularly moonlights from her job as a seamstress in a government-funded orphanage, working as a visiting cleaning lady for a roster of private clients in the city’s more affluent areas. One of these is Kawsar, a distant relative of mine, and it is at her flat that I get talking to Fadila (as I will call her), as she gets on with the dusting.

Speaking of her orphanage job, Fadila echoes the deep attachment most Egyptians still have to working for il-miri (slang for both the Government and the Army). Her government salary is low compared to those on offer in the private sector. But in today’s economic climate, the job offers a sense of security associated with privileges of a by-gone era, something which even graduates fight tooth and nail for, especially in view of the shrinking opportunities currently available in Egypt’s labour market. Security comes both from freedom of fear of being laid off (a daily and immediate risk in the private sector), and the public sector pension on retirement at 60. The pension, like the salary, will be modest – but as Fadila reasons, “If it gets me a cup of tea and a loaf of aish baladi (unleavened bread) a day, then I will be able to live on my own money, with my affairs nobody else’s business.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit of Fadila’s miri job is its low demands on her time. She is required to be at her orphanage workplace from 1 pm to 4 pm every day – which leaves her the mornings free for her private cleaning business, and the evenings for looking after her two adult sons (her husband having died some years previously – and ‘the boys’ remaining out of work). Fadila takes great pride in having, with her husband, worked the family up from and out of urban poverty – and it is this social-mobility achievement which she sees at greatest risk from the upheavals of the revolution and all that came after:

“My late husband made sure we lived a lifestyle of mustawa (standards – implying respectability, ‘keeping up’) – and I work hard so that I don’t settle for less. But because of the revolution, money these days has no baraka (blessing, inherent goodness). You earn a wad of cash one day, and next it’s as if you never had it.”

Her reference is to the rises in the price of fuel and most basic necessities, as government subsidies are cut back and the increasingly privatised economy continues to deteriorate as a result of the global recession and the post-revolution collapse in tourism and investment. Her over-riding concern is the unbridgeable distance between expenses and income, and its potential repercussions for completing projects for settling her two sons in good jobs and getting them married off. Her response is to take on a workload which requires juggling several private cleaning clients a day (compared to her pre-revolution pattern of ‘a selective list of steady contacts’). Mobility has for her become a bread-and-butter issue, so at 7am each day Fadila leaves her home in one of Cairo’s traditional, lower income areas for the daily battle which travelling to her clients’ homes has, since the revolution, become. The cheaper Government bus services (including Nile water buses) now run infrequently, and with an increasingly questionable safety record. This has led to rumours that it is only a matter of time before they shutdown altogether, “not a loss that will be missed!” Continuing demand for public transport is taken up by a stratified ‘each according to his means’ conglomeration of private micro-buses, service buses & semi-privatised buses, which impose different rates to ply the arterial routes linking the city’s traditional areas to its more affluent European-looking neighbourhoods with their cafes and chic boutiques. These routes are subject to frequent, unpredictable disruption as different neighbourhoods are sealed off for the persistent interventions in the Army and Police’s ever-present ‘War Against Terrorism’ (harb did el-erha - a set phrase relentlessly repeated on all official media, seemingly with a deliberate attention of invoking parallels with post-9/11 America). The unpredictability of travel time contrasts with the certainty of continuing fare hikes, something with which Fadila has scant sympathy:

“The drivers complain about the increasing withdrawal of state support. But you can’t believe everything you are told these days. I reckon it takes them just one round trip in the early hours to make up for each rise in the price of fuel – after that the rest of their day is pure profit (laffa wahda wil baqi maksab).”

Fadila is also bitterly critical of the effects of the revolution on young people, and in particular her two adult sons:

“These days the youth are out of control, glued to ilit adab (sex talk, flirtation) on Facebook, mobile phones and computer screens all hours of the night - they can’t get out of bed the next day. I’m not sure where we lost the plot, but even when the revolution first took off I sensed dark days (ayyam mish hilwa). My two sons are prime examples of widespread infilat (disorder). Do they care if they miss work interviews, or never make a start for themselves in life? The youngest failed his first exam in Arabic, and never went back to school. He says the public education of this country will get him nowhere. He keeps bad company, hanging out with his mates who drive motorbikes because he thinks it looks cool – never mind the chance it gives for killing yourself. I want stability for them - but these days I’m not sure what will get them off their backsides. They answer back, give me the silent treatment, belittle my suggestions as I work harder to pay higher bills: the electricity bills alone are nar guhanam (the fires of hell)!”

In her social circle, powerlessness is experienced as a vicious cycle of endless restlessness. The domestic landscape of home and family is characterised by outbursts of anger, persistent jealousies between close family members, exchanges of verbal insults - signs of domestic upheavals which are also experienced through other faces of abusive and violent behaviour. In such heightened socio-economic precariousness, the increasing struggle to keep up mustawa (standards), and the ever-tenser domestic environment, Fadila struggles to hold fast to her authority as the sole breadwinner. In this struggle she sees Sisi as her salvation:

“We were deceived into thinking the uprising was going to change our lives for the better. We need a firm leader who feels for us hard-working ghalaba (literally ‘defeated – but in the sense of ‘having lost out’ on life’s rich pickings).”

Graphic with Sisi's image, a hawk and a dog plus Arabic text

Sisi the Egyptian eagle and watchdog of the nation (“ I swear to punish all conspirators against Egypt - none will escape!“)She applauds the personal example the media continually celebrate Sisi for setting, involving both personal sacrifice and Stakhanovite labour directed towards the national good:

“I’ve been saying this for a while. Sisi must be a good person if he is making these monumental sacrifices. It was said on TV he surrendered half his share of the family inheritance to the “Long Live Egypt” fund and is living on a portion of his wages. And look how he has inaugurated hukumit sabaa il-subh! ( ‘the 7am Government’, a reference to Sisi’s reported order that the Cabinet follow his example of being at their desks promptly by 7am – in sharp contrast to the laid-back work ethic in retail business that has made working hours after noon prayers something of a trend).”

These noble personal efforts are, Fadila believes, complemented by Sisi’s renewal of the Nasserist role of the State, not simply abandoning the hard working poor to their neo-liberal fate, but welding them into a relationship of mutual contributions and benefits. While Nasser himself focused government subsidies on basic commodities (gas, electricity, sugar, bread etc), Sisi reflects the economic spirit of the times by focussing on financial services. Thus the ‘Second Suez Canal’, his flagship project for the transformative spirit of the military regime, takes the shape of corporate nationalism and market-led initiatives, promising a fresh start to unify the public against its Islamist critics, and offering high dividends for its bonds – even though military projects of the past have always been ‘official’, distanced and detached from the people. Fadila’s response reflects this shift in priorities from the substantive to the financial, as she abandons her previous retirement scheme for investing her savings in opening her own private sewing academy, in favour of plunging into the financial services market:

“They say the new Suez Canal shares they plan to flog in the market will have 12% interest rates! I’m thinking of investing in this banking scheme once the rates are fixed. It’s far more lucrative than anything offered by the national banks. And after all, it’s going to be the army that will be tending these new shoots. If we don’t trust the army to make things right, who is there to get us out of these deep waters?”

Her reasoning is not uncommon: by December 2014, reports in the local press had it that a total of 70 million Egyptian pounds (£7 million) worth of Suez Canal bonds had been purchased as investments by ‘ordinary simple Egyptians’, demonstrating the level of trust in the new government’s more robust leadership. This stands in sharp contrast to the business community’s reluctance to throw its weight behind the project, despite Sisi’s much-quoted speech that summer putting pressure on the affluent biznessmen of the Mubarak era to hatidfa’u yani hatidfa’u (pay up – and I mean pay up!) – the repetition becoming something of a catch phrase in local parlance for the new regime’s ‘tough love’ stance.

Every story, like every coin, has two sides. Read Fadila's client's perspective in part two of this two -part article: The madame's story

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