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Falling apart: a glimpse of life in Cairo

Maged Mandour

A personal account of returning to a profoundly changed city, and of worrying trends under military dictatorship.

 

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.  

About the author

Maged Mandour graduated from Cambridge with a Masters in International Relations. He is a political analyst and the columnist of “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” on openDemocracy. He is also a writer for Sada, the online journal for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him @MagedMandour


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