North Africa, West Asia

Whatever is happening to the Egyptians? (part two)

Public spaces in Cairo have evaporated in the last decade. Could this be why the social gap has evolved into alarming segregation accompanied with ignorance, ‘othering’ and disdain?

Hesham Shafick Radwa Saad
2 June 2015
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Mohamed Ali Eddin/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Earlier this month, I wrote an article in which I analysed by observations of AUC’s Hara event, as I found the levels of social unawareness among the Egyptian upper-middle class quite alarming.

The article demonstrated how the event’s portrayal of the lower middle-class was unreservedly negative and entirely unrealistic, yet interestingly reflective of what the upper middle-class believe about themselves: what they are and what they are not.

In this article, I suggested that the prominent socioeconomic analyst and author of Whatever happened to the Egyptians, Galal Amin, share his views on people’s migration to gated communities. Upon my request, Amin read the article and offered to meet and discuss his views with me.

Amin contested my projection of gated communities as a new social phenomenon and explained why. He believes that “gating the elites” should not be seen as anything other than the inevitable evolution of consumerism that started back in the 1970s, during Sadat’s Infitah. The continuous and cumulative expansion of the gap in purchasing power within the middle class paved the road for its split into two classes: upper and lower middle.

In my opinion, however, if we are to accept this gap as an explanation for social segregation, why does this gap translate into the upper middle-class’ disdainful objectifying of the lower middle class as outdated, barbaric, and inferior, as expressed in AUC’s Hara event?

For the rich’s economic superiority does not in any way justify their civil, moral, or ethical superiority. There must be other non-economic factors that make members of the new upper middle class see the lower middle as inferior. Inferior to the extent that their slums are perceived as “places that an AUC student could never possibly go.”

This, in my opinion, is a new development. For despite the existence and expansion of the socio-economic gap since the Infitah in the 1970s, the Hara event is the first of its kind—at least to my knowledge. A couple of decades (if not years) ago, an event that introduces the upper middle class to the lives of the lower middle class would have been totally ignored, if not satirically mocked.

This could be because these two layers of the middle class interacted daily before this mass migration into gated communities.

To the upper middle class, lower middle class members were their coworkers, colleagues, and/or neighbors, which facilitated their interaction. They lived in the same neighborhoods, prayed in the same mosques, hung out at the same squares, cheered for the same football teams, went to the same movies, and listened to the same music.

Of course, there were always groups of ‘untouchables’ at the top and bottom of the social pyramid, who lived independent, exclusionary [or rather excluded], parallel lives. But between the ‘untouchables’, the majority of the population shared most spaces (albeit with different shares): such as the market, workplace, street, and public services.  

It was through this interaction that the upper-middle class made their fortune. They bought the labour of the lower middle class and sold them products and services, or served them as bureaucrats, government officials, or teachers and professors in the public domain. Thus, although some made higher surpluses from this social interaction, they were all reliant on “public space” to facilitate their economic activity; a space that kept society interactive and cohesive, despite expanding economic discrepancies.  

The concept of public space was introduced in Jurgen Habermass’ (1962) in his classic The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. He defined the public sphere as spaces that allow the interaction of different social levels on an equitable basis. Joseph Stiglitz, the renowned economist, made the concept more comprehensive by explaining it in economic terms: “[public spaces] are [actual or virtual] spaces that are non-excludable.” That is, spaces that do not have a price tag: like public parks, public schools, mosques, political parties, the workplace, and non-commercial media. These public spaces, intentionally or not, keep society intact and interactive despite economic variations.

When I look back at my childhood, growing up in downtown Cairo, it became clear how these public spaces evaporated in the last decade. This, I believe, is why the social gap has evolved into an alarming segregation accompanied with ignorance, ‘other-ing’ and disdain.  

The free elites of downtown versus the gated elites of Sheikh Zayed

I grew up with my grandfather, a lawyer and statesman, who comes from a well-known Sa’idi (Upper Egyptian) family and enjoys the economic level and lifestyle of your typical Egyptian elite.

For a living, he worked as a deputy minister then adviser to the Prime Minister, before managing his independent law-firm. In his free time, he cooked, listened to classical music, played his own compositions, or went to the local sports club to play croquet, practice shooting, or swim. Yet such aristocratic practices were not completely isolated from members of the lower-middle class.

He lived in a building in the downtown Giza district, where he also had his private office. This building—like many others at this historical juncture—signified and symbolised the interaction between the different levels of the social strata.

The top floor hosted the flat-owners’ class, my grandfather and his brothers. Underneath were the tenants, who were a mixture of public school students and tutors, professionals, bureaucrats, and owners of small enterprises. The basement hosted the Bawab (guard/janitor) and his family. Those three segments, although living on different levels (in the building and socioeconomically), were neighbors who interacted on a daily basis.

Even though my grandfather owned the building, he was not eager to invest or move into a gated compound. At the time, it was not normal practice among members of his class; it didn’t appear to be a rewarding investment, and more importantly it was a totally foreign concept at the time.

He invested his socioeconomic surplus in his leisure. We used to go on vacation for the whole twelve weeks of summer in his chalet in Gamasa, making a surplus of ten extra-weeks over the average two-week middle-class vacationer. However, this variation did not deny middle-class vacationers access to Gamasa. The only difference was that we could afford to spend longer periods of time there. Chalet and apartments owners, one-week renters, two-week renters, room-sharers, and non-resident beach-seekers all had access to the same spaces, and took away similar memories and stories. With the exception, of course, of the few Pasha (upper class) families who spent their vacation in Montaza.

Gated summer escapes, such as La Vista, Marassi, Hacienda and the like, were not only non-existent, but a foreign concept to middle-class Egyptians. These communities are now the only places upper middle-class Egyptians go to. They lie far away from any city, with all their needs provided for inside walls and gates.

Until very recently, the same logic of living in a building in Giza and vacationing in Gamasa applied to most daily practices of schooling, socializing, sports, and every aspect of human interaction. This all reinforced the social ties between the different levels of the middle-class.

Given such a setting, when I made childhood friends, Mohamed, the son of ‘Am Mokhtar the Bawab, was among them. In fact, he was exceptional to me, not only because we shared the same birthday, but also because he had a huge playground (backyard) on his floor of the building (the basement).

Although I had access to a higher level of education than Mohamed, we usually came back from school in the same vehicle, because our schools were in the same district: Zamalek. After school, we’d come home and find my grandfather and ‘Am Mokhtar in the office, the first on a desk reading, the second making coffee and tea. Although we were aware of the discrepancy between incomes, to us they were colleagues and neighbours who worked in the same building; the first as a guard, the second as a lawyer.   

On Fridays, Mohamed and I prayed together in Fatma El Zahraa’ mosque, then we’d go for a walk along the Nile Corniche and enjoy jelaty (ice cream) or hummus el sham (traditional drink) before walking back home together. Our conversations revolved around the previous night’s movie on television, the coming week’s El-Ahly football match, or the awaited Amr Diab album.

As our exposure was similar, we grew up with similar interests, tastes, habits and demands. The gap in our abilities to meet our demands did not prevent us from having similar demands and tastes in the first place. For my socioeconomic position allowed me to enjoy a bigger share of opportunities within the middle-class, but did not give me exclusive or exclusionary opportunities that were isolated from Mohamed’s or other friends.

It’s completely different today. My son, alas, will not have the opportunity to make a friend like Mohamed. Living in a gated villa in Sheikh Zayed, protected by hired security guards, who are separated from their families, and trained to keep interaction with the owners at a minimum, the nearest member of Mohamed’s class is miles away from my son.

He will most likely go to a school near home, probably in a neighboring gated compound that does not serve the lower-middle class, due to extortionate school fees and inaccessibility. He will not have a common building-basement to play in, but he will have his own private garden, or gardens and clubs that are exclusive to his social class, the same class he will meet in Zayed’s schools, mosques, cinemas, and hangouts. Like his colleagues at school, he will most probably stay home after school and play PlayStation, listen to western music, observe Premier League matches, or watch an American movie on a satellite channel. 

He will visit the mall or café across the road that exclusively serves his class, as all these entertainment choices carry a hefty price tag. The space where he can interact with members of other social levels does not exist in this area. Even if, by chance, he had the opportunity to talk to ‘Mohamed’s son’, they would not find many common interests, if any; for they no longer listen to the same music, cheer for the same team, or watch the same TV channels.

When both tastes and spaces carry price tags, the interaction between people of different income levels is not only economically disabled, but socially redundant. The income gap has not only grown wider, it is now exclusionary, behind walls and gates.

For economic capability is no longer an opportunity to quantitatively increase what you have, but to qualitatively change what you are. That is, not only having access to more, but also having less access to ‘older’ public spaces.

Reflecting on my own experience, I would say I lost a lot more than I gained. Although I now live in a bigger house, work in a place with more green areas, and vacation in less crowded venues with higher access to facilities, I still miss my Friday routine with Mohamed; non-exclusive leisure experiences that are easily shared with others from different classes and perspectives.

At least I have my memories. I feel sorry for my son, who does not really know that an equally, if not more, enjoyable world exists beyond his gated compound.  

The pressing question is: 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?

I will attempt to respond to these questions in another article. But for now, it suffices to agree that this movement towards isolation/gating is not an inevitable consequence of the economic-gap’s expansion.    

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