North Africa, West Asia

Whatever happened to the Egyptians, Pt.4: would-be aristocrats

What is it that makes the rich of Egypt so insecure? Why do they want to escape all of a sudden? Why do we frighten them? عربي

Hesham Shafick
31 August 2016
Lewis Stickley/EMPICS Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Lewis Stickley/EMPICS Entertainment. All rights reserved.Marassi is a gated leisure community where the rich of Egypt spend their summers. To be permitted as a visitor, let alone owner, you need to not only have the financial means but also proven class calibre. Some of their restaurants/clubs, before allowing you in, even ask to see your Facebook profile to verify that you are “classy enough”.

Would I ever share my personal Facebook profile with someone I don’t know so that they can check my eligibility? It’s mind boggling. Why would I, by my own free will, choose to be “class-ified”?

The ads for their facilities pose plenty of questions. Short and commanding, they claim a disciplining authority over an upper-class that supposedly needs their gated community to be revived. One of the ads is a picture of a half-naked white man (in a predominantly African country), shot from the back, with a four-word message on his muscular body: “Get sexy for Marassi”. “Get ripped for Marassi” and "Get fabulous for Marassi" are variations on the theme.

It strikes me that Marassi’s business model goes against successful businesses codes. Their pitch is inappropriate in numerous ways: it is in English in an Arabic-speaking country; its protagonist is a white man although most Egyptians are brown, if not black; it revolves around masculinity although the facilities accommodate families and both genders and, above all, it does not say anything about the place or the services it provides. What it does is to discriminate against potential customers and feed into the insecurities of anyone who is not sure of being allowed in. So,far too stressful for a leisure spot; which in essence should be a place where people can enjoy life beyond formalities and class obligations.

But the model is apparently doing quite well; with house prices sky rocketing and new venues opening almost every month. Why?

It seems that this class is content to be treated as a potential threat, as long as the real threat is kept at arm's length. Just as many of us accept police checkpoints for our safety, these people do not mind that their vacation spot is, in a sense, ‘securitised’ (Facebook profiles inspected, etc...) as long as they are ‘protected’. But, why do they feel so in need of protection?

They clearly hate us. They don't want us anywhere near them. When I say ‘us’, I am not speaking on behalf of the poor. In fact, I am far from poor. But even middle-class Egyptians like myself are denied entry. The ‘threat’ or the ‘other’ here is not only the poor or even the middle class, but also the rich who do not follow their classical model, such as the "nouveau riche" or the ‘balady’ [locals].

Is it really worth the millions being spent on holiday homes in gated communities on the north coast of Egypt? I will leave such questions open-ended, for I really can’t find an answer. But there are two observations that can be made.

First, the people who go to these elite gated communities, such as Marassi, seem to be very conscious not only of their class, but the risk of extinction it faces. The neo-bourgeoisie, those who made their fortunes in the Gulf and during the infitah jeopardize this classical aristocratic class. The “old” bourgeoisie are willing to do whatever it takes to reclaim the initiative and their territory. These gated communities opened up such an opportunity.

Second, they are yearning for a specific mental image of themselves that is far from reality; an image which does not only entail ‘class’, ‘ripped-ness’, ‘sexiness’ and even, paradoxically, ‘whiteness’, but also ‘purity’ from non-classy elements – the balady. This mental image, created rhetorically through the ads and through the ‘inspection’ of anyone who attempts to visit, is engrained in their daily practice, making it believable.

The genius of Marassi’s business model lies in its creation of ‘class’ as a commodity in itself. They are selling ‘class’ to their customers not vacation homes. They seem to be selling the mental image of what is believed to be a European aristocrat; classy, sexy and even white. This is what people are paying extortionate amounts for. By investing in such establishments, they are investing in ‘themselves’.

"Get sexy for Marassi" is not a call to literally invest in your sexiness. It is to be understood in reverse. Marassi is the spot where ‘sexy’ people are; if you manage to get in, you are sexy! Sexy here means ‘classy’ and looking like today’s international upper-class: a muscular, white and English-speaking man.

This is an exercise in purity that thrives mainly through exclusion. Class is not about wealth as much as it is about being part of the ‘rich’. That is, looking and acting, and now ‘vacationing’ like one.  

The bad news, my ‘sexy’ friends of Marassi, is that: the world had been class-exclusionary for quite some time and has never reached equilibrium. Like the treadmill, the aspiration for 'classiness' (or sexiness or whatever) will keep haunting this class forever. Their achievements are counted in terms of the miles they run; miles they virtually run while they are actually in the very same place they started. They finish, proud of their achievements, only to go back the next day to perform the same task over and over again; a task that is endless and destination-less.  

People have paid millions for a spot that is about 400 km from the capital where they live; who knows where the 'classy' spot will be next year or the year after?

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