North Africa, West Asia

Whatever is happening to the Egyptians?

The socio-economic gap is widening, and taking an ideological and cultural form. This comes as no surprise, because unity makes people a threat to power.

Hesham Shafick
11 May 2015
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New Heliopolis City/Flickr. All rights reserved.

In his classic, Whatever Happened to the Egyptians, Galal Amin splendidly demonstrated how the reconstruction of Egypt’s social structure—perpetrated by the July 1952 coup—shifted the moral code of Egyptian society.

By investigating social values and norms—ranging from the formation of the neo-bourgeoisie, the introduction of religious fanaticism alongside the intensification of westernisation, to the redefinition of marriage, love, class, vocation, and entertainment—Amin postulates that coup-induced social mobility inflicted radical changes in the moral and material values, customs, habits, and patterns of consumption and investment of the Egyptian aspirant classes.

In his two best-sellers, Amin traced how the new middle-class, formed by what Moslemany aptly named “the social regime of July”, developed a new identity for the ordinary “Egyptian”. An identity that was constructed through new consumption behaviors and patterns, yet also mutually constructive of it.

Being a prudent economist, Amin read this social change as a reaction to political and economic policies. Many others however, such as Heikal and Hamrosh, view it as a bottom-up effect where social transformation was the main driver for change on the top. 

In all cases, empirical evidence shows that the 1952 military-coup was not only rebellion against Egypt’s political regime, but also against the values and norms of its political subjects.

But to our predicament, the aforementioned authors, as well as many others, have given a lot more weight to 1952’s revolution than to all other socio-political revolutions that have since followed.

Is it because the first got more international attention? Maybe. It might also be because 1952's coup/revolution was part and parcel of a new global order, or simply, because it was the "loudest" and most militarised.

If one were to compare the 1952 coup/revolution to Sadat’s revolutionary Infitah (open door policies), one could conclude that Sadat’s revolt is much more definitive of today’s society than Nasser’s.

In 2009, in his novel, Bilal Fadl warned that if gated communities were to continue to expand, the powerful class would eventually forget about the parallel outburst of slums and ghettos. Additionally, economic resources and political debates would solely revolve around the political economy of the alienated, westernised, powerful society, leaving out the "native Egyptians."

This was recently reflected in the economic conference held in Sharm El Sheikh, and the very emblematic project of Egypt's "New Capital”. However, the social implications of this ultra-bias towards a certain societal segment did not gain enough attention; neither in local media nor academic circles.

Besides Fadl and Amin’s attempts to highlight these societal dysfunctions, I cannot think of any local academic or literary work that has given the revolutionary policy of "gating the elites" enough attention.

In order not to be too harsh, it must be pointed out that most of the hazardous social impacts of Sadat’s Infitah policy did not actually materialise until very recently. This frictional time-lag between policy-implementation and policy-implication might be the reason for this.

Yet, it should definitely be taken into consideration that the struggle between the Nasserist social agenda and Sadat’s Infitah came to the surface in the July coup of 2013. A critical mass of the elites have now decisively aligned themselves with Sadat’s socio-economic policies (reflected in the recent economic forum, the reconciliation with corrupt businessmen, and the embrace of regressive taxation); bringing to the surface the symptoms of Sadat’s socio-economic revolution more vividly and bluntly. 

Khaled Tawfik's Utopia may be the only work that has addressed this topic. The novel depicts a society in which the inhabitants of isolated gated communities start to fathom the poor as sub-humans who belong to a different species. The book’s ending was absolutely miserable: the rich, bored of luxury and an easy life, started entertaining themselves by hunting “sub-humans” and decorating their houses with their heads and limbs.

When I first read this novel—about a year ago—I thought Tawfik was just taking it to an exaggerated extreme, following the footsteps of Sartre, Orwell, and many other advocates of Zizek's "social shock-therapy”.

It was only when I recently personally witnessed the Hara [Slum] event at the American University in Cairo (AUC)—in which the rich of AUC amused themselves with a simulation of the natural habitat of the less fortunate—did I realise that I had got Tawfik wrong.

Not only could I see common ground between Utopia's and AUC society, but I could also see through the [elite] media’s portrayal of the event, how the classification of the poor as sub-human has become normalised.

This event at AUC made me think, with a risk of exaggerated pessimism, that our society is evolving into what Tawfik had envisioned.

Constructing the orient's orient: modern orientalism

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Michaeladarasinger/Flickr. All rights reserved.

On Thursday April 23, the American University in Cairo's (AUC) Theatre and Film Club invited the AUC community to an event, where they could watch a simulation of an Egyptian slum, talk to "people of this ghetto", eat "their" food, and shop in places similar to where "they" shop.

All you needed to do was pay a EGP150 ticket and you could get access to this mysterious world where you could meet the “locals” - people who in reality are not much different to yourself, but might, in your consciousness, be part of a parallel, traditional, impoverished, and to a huge extent, frightening world. The place, as summarised in one of the organisers' statements, "where an AUCian could not possibly go.”

If the repugnance or fear of the AUC community about [real] slums can be explained in terms of class tensions or a growing abyss between the classes, the question which prevails is: why would AUC students be entertained by observing a virtual slum? What is the fascination? And what is perceived as particularly “exceptional” about people who, a few years back, were not even perceived as “other”? How, and why, did no one raise this question as the event was being planned and organised? Did no one question the purpose or logic behind the construction of a virtual human zoo of people who are neither less human nor less Egyptian than those coming to observe them? I searched the images and messages displayed and communicated on the day of the event for some answers.

Entering into this constructed slum, all you can hear are noises in variant forms: the market, the wedding, the beggars, the harassers, and loud popular music. To make it noisier, every few minutes, quarrels would break out here and there. The environment was designed to make one not only feel very irritable, but also unsafe. For how could a person feel safe among those wild barbaric creatures?

Anyone who has ever entered a real Egyptian slum would quickly notice how different it is from the AUC-exaggerated version. The markets may be as noisy as portrayed, but only during peak hours (no more than 4-6 a day). Other sources of noise do not reflect reality. For instance, why would a beggar beg in a slum?

These were mere reflections of a mental picture of slum-seekers, constructed through their 'othering' by movies, advertisements for gated communities, and other forms of mass media messages familiar in the communications of the upper-middle classes.

It was the movies that immediately sprung to mind: ElSakka's movie, Ibrahim El-Abyad, Mohamed Ramadan's movie, Abdo Mota, and so many others in the genre that portray standardised barbaric versions of Egyptian slums. Or even worse, those advertisements for gated communities, such as Mountain Views' projection of the suffering of classy humans who live "around" barbarians and in need of an escape. Here we had a modern and local extension of Edward Said's (1979) 'orient': portrayed as "inferior" to the superior occident in all its aspects.

If Said were still alive, he would assuredly have been puzzled by how the victims of 'orientalism' eventually turned into its enthusiastic advocates. But I had just witnessed how first-rank Orients (AUC students) set about distinguishing themselves from the 'lower-ranks'.

One important constitutive element of this was the way main actors were dressed in outdated outfits (galabeyas, 'abayas, and Tarabish), portraying them as members of an elder, more traditional, society; a place from the past. One of the organisers indeed framed the slum as "part of our history"

It seems as if the entire purpose of one modern narrative of Egypt's history is to maintain the gap between these 'two levels' of Egyptians, one which enables the rich to transcend their oriental culture and transform themselves into embodiments of the modern, western-like, superior model that the poor have failed to incubate.

This was even more obvious in the example this organiser used to prove the importance of such a segment in our society: "these slums are where many great people in our society come from; like Gamal Abdel Nasser." Members of their slum society only become significant when they get promoted to our society; the way Nasser did when he became president. The fact that Nasser never actually came from a slum makes the example even more telling an example of the scramble to relate those subjects to our privileged society.

In conclusion, the event was a projection of a world that does not really exist in reality, but only in the organisers’ minds. Such an event reflects the identity and culture of the gated communities. This traditional, semi-medieval, noisy and frightening world, which is believed to exist just beyond their gates, is created to differentiate themselves from the external 'other' and to justify and embody the neo-bourgeoisie’s alienation in their luxurious prisons.   

Why fear such an event?          

This event is particularly alarming for two fundamental reasons. First, it symbolises an extreme case of social segregation between two social classes. Second, the fact that this event took place with no reaction or condemnation, except on Mada Masr, reflects the public normalisation of the social phenomenon it reflects.

The event signals the way in which the socio-economic gap is taking an ideological and cultural form, with implications not only limited to some AUC members, but widely accepted by other elites (in the media, the arts,academe, etc).

This leaves us with the hope that Galal Amin will enrich our libraries with a new book on “whatever happened to the Egyptians in the gated communities?”

This time, Amin would not be writing about the change in the structure of academics, authors, musicians, or the reformation of love, marriage, and weddings. He would be writing about a daunting objectification of human subjects, which might develop into much more frightening images than the aforementioned human zoo. Maybe one in which these poor objects are put up as decoration on the villas of the rich Utopia "hunters" in gated communities?

How can we reverse this process? The solutions are easy to list, but very difficult to implement. Education, integration, social-orientation, and so many other solutions that end with “ation” are desperately needed. Yet in practice, these are hard to instigate; as Amin concluded his last session at the British University in Cairo (another gated schooling community): “those who have the will do not have the power, and those who have the power do not have the will.”

I would like to add that those who hold power today are those who celebrated the AUC Hara event on local media, and who will always celebrate any endeavor that enhances segregation between Egyptians. This comes as no surprise, because when everyone met on common ground on 25 January 2011, our military rulers trembled.

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