North Africa, West Asia

Window on the Middle East - July 28, 2015

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. 

Arab Awakening
29 July 2015
  • Seven trends dominating Egyptian media
  • North Sinai and Egyptian media
  • Tunisia – tug of war?
  • Falling apart: a glimpse of life in Cairo
  • Whatever is happening to the Egyptians? (Part three)
  • Seven trends dominating Egyptian media

    By Ahmed Magdy Youssef


    Hussein Tallal/Demotix. All rights reserved.

    July 3 marks the two year anniversary of the ‘popular’ ouster of the former Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi.

    It’s quite evident that Egypt’s state-run and privately owned media outlets are trapped in a web of biases; embracing president Abdel Fattah El Sisi and his regime's perspective as they step into ethical and professional quandaries. Moreover, the imprisonment of journalists nationwide has reached a record high, mostly for reasons pertinent to their reporting.

    In such a climate of frenzied bias, it's of perennial interest to observe the trends that have dominated the country's media landscape over the past two years, most notably during Sisi's first year in power.

    1. Sex scandals and sorcery

    Earlier this year the editor-in-chief of Tahrir News, Ibrahim Mansour, suggested that the government was giving direct instructions to media outlets to "cover sex scandals and other silly issues" to distract people from politics. Mansour's statement came a few weeks after 26 men were arrested during a televised raid on a Cairo public bathhouse.

    The televised documentation of this raid couldn't have been possible without a tip off, because images of half naked men were broadcast as they were being arrested. TV journalist, Mona Iraqi, who covered the incident, hosts a program on the pro-government satellite channel Al-Qahira wal-nas. Coincidentally, the cases of "habitual debauchery" against these men were later dismissed.

    Ironically, this same TV journalist, who unearthed "the biggest den of perversions in the heart of Cairo," posted a tweet few days ago in support of LGBT rights.

    Similarly in mid-2014, another Egyptian talk show host, Reham Saeed, kicked an atheist guest off her live show for expressing scepticism of Islam. In the same year Saeed, in a desperate bid for TV ratings, brought "demonically possessed" children to television screens in an attempt to unabashedly tackle the nitty-gritty details of twins that turn into cats at night.

    2. Graphic images

    It's patently obvious that image selection has always been an ethical dilemma for journalists across the globe. In other words, it's deemed unethical to publish disturbing images of the dead and wounded. Taken in this light and in the throes of Egypt's war on terror’, some local media outlets resorted to republishing graphic images released by the military, which depict corpses of militants killed in Sinai by soldiers.

    Al-Youm Al-Sabea, Al-Bawaba and Al-Watan  newspapers among others, sided with the government and focused their coverage on extolling the army's soldiers and documenting their victory. This trend has been reiterated more than once over the past two years of Sinai’s festering clashes.

    3. In-credible sources

    No one can deny the ever-rising media trend, in an age of web-based journalism, of relying on stories sourced from other journalists. However, all the blemishes and flaws of this trend have appeared in Egypt's local media, especially during bomb raids against ISIS in Libya in retaliation to the beheading of Egyptian Copts by a local franchise of the Islamic State.

    The Kuwaiti writer and journalist, Fajer Al-Saeed, with her controversial tweets on Egyptian Air Force attacks in Libya is but a one example of this. After some of her predictions were accurate, she became a credible and reliable source for local media outlets. Being a conduit for secret information, just after the air strikes Al-Saeed kept posting tweets revealing alleged Egyptian military operations against ISIS in Libya in detail.

    Egyptian media adopted all Al-Saeed's tweets and used them as if they were sourced from a military spokesman. Al-Watan, Al-Fajr, Al-Youm Al-Sabea and Al-Dostour, among other Egyptian newspapers, copied the tweets verbatim.

    4. Slamming foreign media

    After security forces cleared two pro-Morsi sit-ins in August 2013, Egypt's State Information Service (SIS) issued an English-language statement to foreign media excoriating their coverage of the events. The statement criticised foreign reporters of steering away from "objectivity" and "neutrality”, especially in their description of Morsi's ouster as a military coup and not an expression of popular will. Consequently, local media outlets adopted the government’s viewpoints.

    The same trend was reiterated a few days ago when militants linked to ISIS attacked the military in Egypt's Sinai peninsula. In an interview with state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, the military's spokesman, Brigadier General Mohamed Samir, said the army “was fighting two wars": against the militants and the media.

    Associated Press and other foreign news agencies said 64 Egyptian troops had been killed, whilst the army put the number at seventeen. As a result, General Samir reprimanded foreign agencies and other media outlets for reducing people’s morale by overestimating the number of dead soldiers.

    Unfortunately, numerous local media outlets sided with the government and launched a deliberate attack against foreign agencies in an attempt to diminish the latter's credibility and reliability. Ironically, the privately owned newspaper Al-Watan published an article titled "five professional mistakes foreign newspapers made in covering Sinai's events".

    5. Siding with the state

    Under former president Mubarak, journalists were divided into two camps, either with the president or the opposition, but today most journalists are siding with the military government.

    The Guardian recently published an article that highlighted the number of Egyptian TV presenters and journalists who are now mouthpieces for the government.

    For example, Ahmed Moussa, one of the most popular TV presenters in the country, expressed his unconditional support for the military and president saying: "I would say anything the military tells me to say out of duty and respect for the institution". Similarly, TV host Mahmoud Saad said: "the military should never ever be covered...You have to let them decide what to say and when to say it. You don't know what will hurt national security."

    Moreover, in an interview with Saba’a Ayam magazine, Egyptian talk-show host Wael El-Ebrashy said: "It's inappropriate to use the term objectivity nowadays; the country is in a state of war against terror. We can't be unbiased; we should all side with our country so peace and stability can prevail once more."

    Given the fact that there’s a media blackout and almost fourty percent of the population is illiterate, parochial TV presenters are now shaping public opinion.

    6. Media moguls and self-censorship

    In the wake of January 25th Revolution, many Egyptian privately owned newspapers, TV channels and news websites were taking advantage of the atmosphere of chaos that afflicted the country at that time. These outlets instil a spurious sense of media freedom. However, Egyptian media is far from liberalised; these newly established media platforms are funded by the same cadre of well-known moguls who are aligned with the regime.

    To illustrate, both Reem Maged and Yousry Foda, the two outspoken TV hosts who were known for their fierce criticism of the army and government, disappeared from screens shortly after Morsi's fall in 2013. ONTV’s owner, Naguib Sawiris, however, explicitly denied receiving any instructions from authorities to suspend Reem Maged's show, claiming that the reason was lack of funding from advertisements.

    TV presenter Hafez Mirazi and the prominent political satirist Bassem Youssef also had their programs suspended. CBC pulled Bassem Youssef off air in November 2013, even though his program had the highest viewership in the Arab world.

    7. Curtailing press freedom

    Journalists have faced unprecedented repression over the past two years, especially during Sisi's first year in power. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists recently issued a report claiming that there are 18 journalists currently incarcerated—the highest number of journalists behind bars since it began keeping records in 1990. Most of these journalists are being accused of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

    The most outstanding case was that of the three journalists working for Al-Jazeera: Peter Greste, an Australian citizen, Mohamed Adel Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian national.

    They were arrested in late 2013 for "spreading false news and helping the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood." After spending more than a year in prison, Fahmy and Mohamed were freed on bail; nearly a fortnight after their Australian colleague was deported. On the whole, Freedom House watchdog group ranked Egypt 73 out of 100 in press freedom in 2015, compared to rankings of 68 in 2014 and 62 in 2013.

    Though official censorship is not a tool the government has yet blatantly practiced, in May 2015 privately-owned Al-Watan newspaper was briefly shut down over a headline that was supposedly offensive to President Sisi. The newspaper’s front page headline was changed from Seven entities stronger than Sisi” to “Seven entities stronger than reform.” An opinion piece by the newspaper’s managing editor, Alaa al-Ghatrify, was also censored. The newspaper was permitted to republish but only after the headline was adjusted and the column removed.

    On the flip side, despite the fact that the 2014 Egyptian constitution includes several positive provisions related to freedom of expression, access to information and the media in general, there are still articles that can be used to put journalists behind bars.

    These press laws and penal codes will reach a crescendo when a new anti-terrorism law is approved. This law will make publishing news that counters the official version of events in terrorism-related cases a crime punishable with prison sentences.

    One can only hope that one day Egypt's media outlets will cherish the values of truth, objectivity, accuracy, and accountability, along with independence and freedom of expression.

    North Sinai and Egyptian media

    By Rayna Stamboliyska

    Terrorist attacks have shaken Egypt to mark the second anniversary of the military coup—or at least this is what some claim. One wonders if it would have been any different had Morsi remained in power, as @salamamoussa points out in this tweet.

    One reason it is doubtful that the 3 July anniversary is the motive behind the attack are recent encouragements by ISIS to intensify attacks during the holy month of Ramadan. ISIS was coming anyway—Morsi, Sisi or otherwise—and as we know their horrors are not restricted to Egypt.

    As the situation continues to unfold, it is not the time to speculate about the ISIS affiliates' reasons for these fierce attacks. As usual (maybe even more than usual), rumors are flying around with beefed up images and numbers. Seeing that the great people from are busy with the Greek Euro crisis, I decided to sum up a few of my findings.

    What exactly happened

    Around 9:15 AM CEST, I spotted a tweet by SkyNewsArabia saying that thirty Egyptian Army personnel had been killed and injured as North Sinai militants attacked Sheikh Zuweid. Muhamad Sabry, an Egyptian photojournalist based in North Sinai, had reported this earlier. This was alarming, as on 9 June, militants had already fired rockets at an airport in Sinai used by international peacekeeping forces. If confirmed, yesterday morning’s attack in Sinai would be the first major attack since January 2015, when the ISIS affiliate there, Wilayat Sinai (formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis), launched terrorist attacks killing tens of people.

    Rayna Tweet

    The attacks were quickly described as “gun fire” and “car bombing”. There were conflicting reports on the number of casualties for quite some time. The Egyptian Army spokesperson first announced that ten soldiers were dead or injured, and 22 assailants dead. According to the Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Ahram, there had been no official death toll because ambulances had trouble reaching the injured and killed for fear of getting caught in the crossfire. Then, things like this surfaced:

    Ibrahim tweet

    A suicide car bomb had exploded in a military checkpoint in Abu Rifai, located near Sheikh Zuweid. Things then escalated quickly as multiple IEDs were reported along with militants besieging Sheikh Zuweid’s police station and Egyptian F-16 army jets started flying over the area. Meanwhile, Mohannad Sabry, a Cairo-based freelance journalist, reported on events in Sheikh Zuweid:

    mohsabry tweet 1

    mohsabry tweet 2

    According to army officials, two checkpoints were completely destroyed, one by the aforementioned suicide car bomb and the other by mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. About 70 fighters simultaneously attacked these targets. A local news agency in Sinai reported that an Apache helicopter had been hit by militant fire and withdrawn (also reported by an “IS fanboy” eyewitness). The terrorist militants had also planted landmines on different streets in Sheikh Zuweid to prevent military vehicles from advancing. Of course, in the midst of this it is the civilians who suffer the most…

    The terrorists’ goal is apparently to have full control over Sheikh Zuweid and to “to eradicate the military’s presence in Sinai”. The militants were said to have taken two military tanks, but I was not able to confirm this. The second captured military checkpoint was Abu Higag. Given the way the attack seems to have unfolded — suicide car bombs in multiple locations, RPGs on rooftops, IEDs and mobile weaponry (including 4WD vehicles with mounted machine guns) in various locations across a 60,000 inhabitant city —the assault is highly coordinated.

    The violence spread to Al-Arish, North Sinai’s 'capital' city, and Rafah where explosions were reported. Reports at 3:30 PM CEST indicate that at least 35 people had been killed in the on-going attacks. Israel closed the Nitzana and Kerem Shalom border crossings with Egypt. Some ISIS fanboys were also cheering “we are coming for the Zionists” and “Sinai will be a Jewish cemetery” (I would rather not link to the tweets, there's no need to give these sick people more visibility).

    And then, around noon CEST, Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for the attack saying that its militants had mounted 15 simultaneous attacks on military sites, including “martyrdom operations” on Al-Arish’s officers club and two checkpoints in Sheikh Zuweid “in a blessed invasion”:

    ISIS announcement

    The statement also highlights that “eleven checkpoints and a police station in Sheikh Zuweid were attacked by militants using missiles”. A second statement was issued shortly after the first one, claiming that Wilayat Sinai “had besieged Sheikh Zuweid’s police station”. Ahram Online reported they had also “destroyed two military tanks and attacked four checkpoints using mortar rounds”:

    ISIS claim

    A local woman and her 15 year-old daughter were killed, and five people from one family injured in the on-going clashes. People from Sheikh Zuweid also reported that militants were roaming the streets in vehicles with ISIS flags. Locals having witnessed the attacks report:

    Wedady tweet

    There were reports about Egyptian soldiers being taken hostage by militants, which I could not confirm. Policemen are however trapped in a besieged police station. In addition to the scale and coordination of the attack, what’s new is that Wilayat Sinai seems to aim to control land, not just raid the area.

    From reactions on Twitter, with the Arabic hashtag for #SheikhZuweid trending, the operation is also a huge propaganda win for Wilayat Sinai and, vicariously, for ISIS. And if reports are accurate, the militants have gotten hold of major arms caches and have taken soldiers as prisoners.

    Fake imagery spreads as the situation evolves

    Tabloid Youm7 chose this awful moment to spread fake images of the attack:

    Youm1 tweet 1

    They apparently decided that because people were reporting about terrorists firing RPGs from a building’s roof, they should publish a picture of a suspicious looking bearded man high up on a building. I checked it out and three minutes later, these are the results I found:

    R tweet2
    R tweet 3

    Then, super conveniently, a video emerged entitled “(VIDEO) Moment car bomb explodes in military post in North Sinai, Egypt”:

    Fake video

    It was a fake: the video was first released back in 2013. Egyptian outlet El-Balad had posted a screenshot of it on 12 September 2013 describing it as a failed suicide car bomb attack on a military checkpoint in Al-Arish, North Sinai. El-Balad added that the car belonged to a bank and had been stolen three days prior to the attack. Lastly, the video itself was apparently first published by user ‘GlobalLeaks News’ on YouTube back in 2013.

    And while we were all following conflicting reports over the exact death toll, @JanusThe2 posted this:

    IED tweet

    Sigh. There are many occurrences of this image, as seen from Google search, most of them from 12 November 2014:

    fake IEDs

    Friendly warning: do not click on these links if you happen to find them online. Images accompanying ones of IEDs are extremely graphic.

    Youm7 strikes again, quoting Sky News Arabia on the “60 martyrs from the [Egyptian] security forces” with this image:

    Youm7 tweet 2

    This image is from a piece that listed the “30 Most Powerful Private Security Companies in the World”, dated 11 January 2014. The image, ill-sourced back to a Russian website, is associated with a PMC named the Northbridge Services Group.

    It is also Masrawy’s turn to go through a swift verification process. They posted this tweet on this piece:

    Masrawy tweet 1

     The image from the tweet is not one from today’s attack, although I could not find much on it:

    Fake fighters

    The image Masrawy used in the news piece and which bears a caption along the lines of “Security services impose curfew in Sheikh Zuweid” is from 2013, if not before (as seen on this Iranian website):

    Fake curfew

    In Cairo, reports indicated that Fast Reaction Forces and Central Security were deployed “in preparation for any acts of violence”.

    These are the reports that surfaced in the first half of 1 July 2015.

    How will Egypt's forthcoming anti-terrorism legislation impact what looks like an escalation of violence? Difficult to say, especially with the glaring lack of independent media, which is misinforming and keeping the people of Egypt in the dark.

    Tunisia – tug of war?

    By Oussama Kardi

    Thousands of people rally against terrorism in Tunisia. Hamideddine Bouali/Demotix. All rights reserved.

    Thousands of people rally against terrorism in Tunisia. Hamideddine Bouali/Demotix. All rights reserved.

    When Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight on that fateful day in December 2010, he had no inkling that his act of self-immolation would engulf an entire region in sweeping protests. Yet four and half years on, as Seifeddine Rezgui calmly and meticulously gunned down his victims on a Sousse beach, we can safely assume that the wider consequences of his actions were not lost on him.

    The attack on the Sousse beach, in which 38 tourists tragically lost their lives, was not just an attack on visiting westerners. It was an attack on the brave hotel workers and their industry, who desperately tried to shield their guests from the raging bullets of the murderous gunman. It was an attack on a hardworking builder, who courageously launched missiles of bricks and tiles, succeeding in knocking the gunman down to enable security forces to catch up to him. It was also an attack on Tunisia as whole, orchestrated to wreak havoc on a country that has come so far after overturning decades of dictatorship.

    Since 2011, Tunisia has emerged as the sole success story of the Arab Spring. We waited with bated breath as Egypt flirted with democracy, before returning unrewarded to the tradition of tough military rule. We watched as Libya succumbed to violent struggles of power, the combination of weapons and a lack of authority proving a deadly cocktail for a country once showing promise. And we witnessed as Syria and Yemen slid deeper into the throes of civil war, providing a fertile ground for extremist elements to thrive. Through this all, Tunisia has shone brightly as the beacon of hope in the Arab world, principally guided beyond pitfalls by the willingness of the Islamist Ennahdha party to pursue compromise and conciliation across the political spectrum.

    In January 2014, Tunisia earned praise for adopting a progressive constitution, enshrining the rights that were fought for in the Jasmine revolution. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, urged the people of Tunisia “to continue to inspire the world as they did some three years ago, and serve as an example for dialogue and compromise in resolving political disputes across the region and beyond”.

    Tunisia has proved to the world that there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy, marking the successful transition from despotism through two free and fair elections. Tunisians have placed their faith in the ballot box, despite attempts to steer them down a path well-trodden on by its neighbours. They have faced political assassinations, stagnating numbers of tourists and political deadlocks. All have threatened to derail Tunisia’s democratic transition, but none as much as this recent tragedy.

    According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism contributed to 15.2 percent of Tunisia’s GDP in 2014, directly supporting 230,500 jobs and employing 6.8 percent of the total workforce. This attack sought to destroy the Tunisian economy, deliberately leaving it vulnerable to the tentacles of the extremists who feed on those with nothing.

    Tunisia is now at a crossroads, facing the largest challenge to its democratic transition yet. How should it respond to such an atrocity without undermining the rights and freedoms that have been so resolutely fought for? Can Tunisia now negotiate the thin fine line of liberty and security without resorting to methods that characterise the old guard?

    The horror that we witnessed was not simply confined to a stretch of white sand in Sousse, but it is a symptom of a growing terrorist threat that has gripped the world. It is an international phenomenon that requires an international response, and that includes supporting and reinforcing Tunisia’s security and stability.

    Tunisia is stuck in a tug of war between those who wish it well, and those who wish it hell. If we in the west are truly the champions of freedom and liberty, then we must support those who have demonstrated their willingness to journey down the path of democracy. By murdering innocent tourists, Seifeddine Rezgui sought to extinguish the flames of hope and optimism that were ignited over four years ago. We must not allow this to happen.

    This piece was first published on Al Huffington Post on 10th July 2015.

    Falling apart: a glimpse of life in Cairo

    By Maged Mandour

    1126137 (1).jpg

    Adham Khorshed/Demotix. All rights reserved.

    It has been almost seven years since I decided to leave my home, the once great city of Cairo. Since I moved to Europe I have been noticing changes in the city and its inhabitants, changes both subtle and sinister. This is, of course, to be expected, considering that the country went through the 'Arab Spring'. On my visit this time around, however, I found the change a lot more profound, and it struck me deeper than ever before.

    Everything familiar is now gone; I feel like a stranger in my own city and neighbourhood. Four years after the start of the Egyptian revolt, and two years after the success of the counter-revolution, the city is lost to me.

    This is a personal account of my experience on my last visit to my old home, and what it felt like to be in a country with the overbearing presence of a military dictatorship.

    I had coffee with a friend and she asked me, “what is the most noticeable change you can see in the country?” I answered without hesitation, “poverty”. By this I do not mean poverty in the sense of a statistic, rather in sense of an increased level of social poverty among those considered economically comfortable.

    Among the Egyptian middle class—the class I belong to—I noticed many indifferent and extremely demotivated faces. There is definitely a general deterioration in living standards. Traditional Egyptian middle class lifestyles, which were relatively comfortable, seem to have all but evaporated, especially for the younger generation, who are, due to economic hardship, being subsidised by their parents—often even if they are married with children.

    The poor man in Egypt has become a two dimensional, almost fictional character.

    On the other hand, ‘real’ poverty is even more hidden, due to the increased segregation, classism, and isolation taking place across the city with the spread of gated residential compounds. The humanity and suffering of the poor, the vast majority of Egyptian society, has become nothing more than background noise to the upper and middle classes. The poor man in Egypt has become no more than a two dimensional, almost fictional character.

    Interestingly, this was reflected in television commercials during the holy month of Ramadan. Traditionally, these commercials are focused on food, as food consumption rises in Ramadan. However, food commercials are now non-existent. They have been replaced with commercials for residential compounds, places to isolate oneself from the city and from the poor of the city; commercials asking for donations to help the poor and sick, a way for the middle class to appease a guilty conscience; and propaganda for the new regime.

    This dehumanisation of the poor is coupled with an unprecedented hike in consumerism, and the need to own the latest status symbols in a way that defies logic and basic rational economic behavior.  The ‘need’ for iPhones, iPads, let alone designer brands has become paramount. I saw children no older than five years old holding their own iPads, which cost more than one-month’s salary of one of their parents. But what I found interesting is that when I discussed this with a friend, his reply was that social appearances needed to be kept up for the sake of the children.

    Another more vivid example is the proliferation of new schools. All the schools we (my generation) attended are no longer good enough. Now children attend “international” schools that charge extortionate fees very few can afford, as it has become necessary for social status reasons. These schools not only charge astronomical fees, even by European standards, but are also very selective. They require, for example, knowledge of the English language (not Arabic) before the child is even enrolled, a contradiction to say the least.

    These examples reflect the increased class segregation of Egyptian society, with the elite becoming narrower and their status symbols isolating them from the rest of society. This trend reached its zenith after the 2011 protests, when the upper classes attempted to shield themselves from the masses. The power of the middle class is waning as they yearn to join the upper classes but are unable to, so they try to compete in terms of status symbols.

    I had an interesting discussion with a taxi driver about the increased ‘stability’ of the country. When I asked him what he meant by “stability,” he referred to the lack of protests and strikes. He referred to the crackdown that led to such “stability” as a positive development. This struck me deeply.

    In Egypt, it seems that the suffering of thousands in prisons and mass death sentences are the concern of a small minority. Society is in denial about the events that occurred after the coup in 2013. In certain cases, major societal segments were complicit in these events; by either turning a blind eye or actively endorsing and defending them. Once again, those behind bars become two-dimensional characters whose suffering is their own.

    The full scale of the human tragedy that is taking place in the country is like the elephant in the room nobody wants to acknowledge. Even the polarisation that one would expect to see and feel in the streets of the city is almost non-existent. It has all been driven underground by severe governmental and social repression, with major social segments repressing one another.  

    Finally comes the condition of my closest friends, middle class Egyptians, who are now in their late twenties and early thirties. Most of them have not reached stable financial positions, nor stable personal lives. The reasons for this are varied. The abundance of labour and the high levels of unemployment are depressing wages, and their salaries have not increased sufficiently to keep up with the rising costs of living and the increasing demand for social and status symbols to preserve their place among the ‘elites’.  

    In addition, the monopolistic nature of the Egyptian economy makes prices inelastic, and lower demands do not push prices down for both basic and non-basic goods. Thus, life has become more expensive, social demands are higher, and as such, leaving home becomes almost impossible.

    The focus on social prestige has become paramount.

    Also, on the personal level, divorce rates and failed relationships have reached very high levels. The increased focus on status symbols and the commodification of marriage, where the groom is expected to meet a number of increasingly arduous financial and status obligations, has turned human relationships into financial transactions.

    The focus on status and social prestige has become paramount, while the human element has faded away. In other words, there is an increased dehumanisation of relationships between men and women in Egypt, a process that has led to greater levels of social instability, divorce and broken homes. This has spread among the middle classes due to an increased urge to join the upper classes and the need to distance themselves from the lower classes. 

    In the end, one can safely conclude that the failure of the Egyptian revolt has accelerated these trends. I cannot recognise the city any more nor can I connect with the people the way I used to. I am slowly but surely becoming a foreigner in my own country; a strange sense of estrangement from the place you love the most.

    This feeling, however, is not unique to me. It is prevalent among the Egyptians who never left the country and are struggling with the trauma of social upheaval, massacres, and repression. A trauma that they themselves have not yet acknowledged, and more importantly have not understood the dimensions and depth of. There is a sense of alienation from oneself, a promotion of the worst in us. There is also a strange sense of both material and spiritual decay in the city. Things are literally falling apart.  

    Whatever is happening to the Egyptians? (Part three)

    By Aliyah Tarek

    Cairo International Book Fair. Mahmood Shahiin/Demotix. All rights reserved.

    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.

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