Cairo International Book Fair. Mahmood Shahiin/Demotix. All rights reserved.
I have been following Hesham Shafick’s articles on the evolution of the upper-middle class in Egypt (Whatever is happening to the Egyptians, parts one and two) and have been pondering the questions asked at the end of the second article:
“Why did the new upper middle-class choose to isolate itself from the country to which they belong? Was this a deliberate choice or rather enforced by exogenous political and market forces?”
The answers to these questions have become more evident since Shafick and Saad asked them. A quick review of newspaper headlines, television ads, and social media will reveal the political role this new class plays.
Members of this class are members of the same foundations that broadcast advertisements asking for donations for the poor in Upper Egypt or for the children’s cancer hospital. These ads were at an all time high with everyone glued to Ramadan television series, and are broadcast seconds after compounds like "Mountain Views' projection of the suffering of classy humans who live around barbarians in need of an escape;” as Shafick and Saad put it.
Thus, this class will happily pay 5 EGP to save a cancer patient or feed a needy family, but will also pay millions to live far away from them. What is bewildering is that it does not see the contradiction between the two ads. This love-hate relationship it has with the rest of Egyptian society, of course, serves the interests of the political-ruling class perfectly. The lower classes, however, can’t even afford to think of contributing 5 EGP towards a charitable cause or buying a flat in Cairo, let alone a villa on the north coast, as they struggle to put food on the table for their families.
A brief history
Nasser’s socialist era had public spending at its core, making state sponsored jobs and subsidised goods available.
During Sadat’s rule, the economic crisis that followed the oil boom compelled him to give up Nasser’s socialist policies and cut back on state spending—since there wasn’t enough of a tax-base to support government programs. Sadat sided with market tycoons, with the goal of supporting an empty state treasury with their taxes. His infamous infitah policies opened up Egypt’s economy to capitalist practices. Thus, in one way or another, he reinstated the old bourgeoisie that Nasser had dismantled.
Sadat lived the worst of his nightmares three years before his assassination. The streets were full of bread-rioters condemning cuts on subsidies and the Nasserists rocked his throne with the January 1977 riots. It was obvious that Sadat had failed politically and economically. His excessive ease in dealings with business tycoons made him lose control over the economy, as the Ottoman Khedives did from the Pashas. The economy weakened and the tax collection authority was plundered.
Mubarak had to account for Sadat’s political and economic failures, but the international order and government capabilities stopped him from taking the Nasserist route. He created a class that could contest the socioeconomic power of Sadat’s Pashas (old bourgeoisie), while not aligning themselves with the Nasserist opposition.
This is the class of gated communities. They have compassion towards the society to which they once belonged (lived amongst, befriended, etc. as Shafick’s article highlights), but are not part of anymore. The political elites’ survival became dependent on playing favourites with this class. The goal was to provide special privileges in return for loyalty.
This class is safely ‘gated’ as far away as possible from workers and peasants, but are not enemies of the proletariat. Most importantly, they speak both languages: they are members of the bourgeoisie who live in A-class gated communities, but can still relate to the national agenda and their middle-class ‘ancestors’.
Sisi’s policies show inclinations to Mubarak’s. Again, it doesn’t seem to be a choice as much as it is an obligation due to Egypt’s current political situation.
Sisi needs to isolate this upper-middle class as much as he can to avoid any threats of an uprising. Thus gated communities boom, the new capital (at least as an idea), and other pro-rich projects continue to evolve. But he also needs the funds to feed and silence the masses; thus the creation of the Ta7ya Masr fund and the boom in charity organizations are a necessity.
In a nutshell, all leaders take the steps necessary to generate legitimacy for the survival of their regime; Nasser enlarged the public sphere, Sadat nurtured the old bourgeoisie, Mubarak started a strategy of segregation and Sisi seems to be following in his footsteps.
Here I propose a synthesis between Shafick’s and Galal Amin’s arguments. The first affirms that the whole isolation process revolves around the upper-middle class’ psychology. Today’s generations are growing up in gated communities and attending private educational institutions; they are subconsciously following their families’ footsteps and will remain alienated from the rest of society, in an attempt to maintain their privilege. As such, the upper middle class can be safely classified as a class that is living a false consciousness, alienated from the struggles of the lower middle class. However, this did not occur organically; political influences acted as a catalyst.
This is where Amin complements Shafick’s argument. I can imagine Amin echoing Clinton’s funny slogan “it is the economy, stupid.” It is the economy, or rather the political economy that created the demand. Samer Soliman would say: “the state systematically segregated the society” (refer to his classic, The Autumn of Dictatorship). This new class began to develop this “orientalist” perception of the less-privileged “other”; a mixture of disdain and sympathy (which Shafick vividly depicted).
This phenomenon was not triggered by western “orientalist” values—the majority of gated communities in the US belong to the upper class not the upper middle class—but rather an intended political strategic tactic to generate legitimacy for Mubarak’s regime.
The regime in power intentionally re-structured the classes, and Mubarak’s government played an active role in the stratification of Egyptian society and elevated citizens to the status of upper middle class in return for loyalty and support.
It has yet to be seen how Sisi’s current regime influences and/or identifies with the upper middle class. However, Mubarak’s shadow still lingers within the upper middle class and it doesn’t seem to be fading.