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Imaret Al Insan activity in Ezbet Al Hagana (courtesy of Arab-West Report)
Imaret Al Insan activity in Ezbet Al Hagana (courtesy of Arab-West Report)

Social Apartheid and Inequality in Egypt

One of the biggest hurdles to closing the economic gap is our own attitudes toward the poor
by Omar Ali

 

Driving through the streets of Cairo tells a story. It tells a story of two conflicting yet intertwining worlds. One looks up at the billboards that promise one a life free of congestion, the freedom to walk one’s dog in peace, or walk one’s children away from the roads. One thing that alienates the spectator from the happiness of that Western-style family that is living in such a garden of Eden is the old, worn-out red brick building that the billboard is mounted on. The billboards promise a nice compound of neatly placed houses with a gated entrance marked by a massive fountain stretching a few meters ahead. After one exits the gate of that community, however, the heaps of loosely built and incomplete houses start to appear to sober one up from the fairy tale lived for a few brief moments.

In light of the geographic proximity between the two vastly contradicting communities, one might assume that each community is quite knowledgeable about the other. In fact, if one was to ask the well off of Egypt about the worst off, they might make numerous assumptions that are taken as facts; however, such prejudice is what constitutes the real rift between the two worlds that exist in Egypt.

In Egypt, one does not see the rich and the poor interact much beyond the market place. Relationships of that sort rarely go past the patron-client relationship. How often does one see a boy neatly dressed in well-known designer brands playing ball with a poorly dressed counterpart? We live in a society that assigns derogatory terms to describe social class, such as sabarsi. While the word is used to describe someone as a degenerate, it is assigned to anyone that looks and dresses in a certain way that many find to be comparable to that of a thug. It is precisely such shallow perceptions and understanding of the other that makes the poor of Egypt victims of social apartheid.

Last month, I was invited by Engineer Nagwa Abdel Ghafar to attend an iftar at her youth development school in Ezbet Al Hagana. Eng. Nagwa runs an NGO called Imaret Al Insan, which engages in local housing development and human development in the area. I initially wanted to visit to write about her activities, but the discussions that we had led me to realize this more urgent issue that begs discussing.

Operating in the area since 2005, Eng. Nagwa has a deep understanding of the norms, values and traditions of that community. She explained to me that the majority of the inhabitants of Ezbet Al-Hagana have migrated from villages in Minya in Upper Egypt. Such demographics mean that they have a number of overlapping loyalties and identities. Originally being from conservative communities, people in Ezbet Al-Hagana are loyal, first and foremost, to their religious identity. This is followed by their loyalty to their local identity and, last and possibly least, their national identity.

The trumping of local identity over national identity, however, is not a matter of a lack of patriotism but rather a lack of familiarity and mutual understanding in a big city like Cairo. When there is a conflict in a community such as Ezbet Al-Hagana, it is settled by the community itself without interference from outside authorities. “The police is the oppressor,” says Eng. Nagwa. “They only come at the end of a fight to snatch a body or two, regardless of who might have been the victim or the aggressor.”

At the time of the revolution, however, this feeling had changed. For the first time, the poor’s grievances became matters of public discourse and their demands held in the public sphere. Whether one belonged to the upper or lower classes, the same demands were uttered in every square of the country: “bread, freedom, and social justice.” In Tahrir Square, they were the most present. They were keen to listen to the debates that took place in the square and were the most eager to interrupt the discussions and ask questions.

Such a utopia, however, did not last. It was not long before they went back to being perceived as a burden both on society and the state. Their choices were labeled as ill-informed and influenced by poverty and a lack of education, however true that may be. Their culture was seen as holding the rest of society back. Finally, in more recent times, they have been labeled as a fiscal burden on the state. Consequentially, they returned back to the place they felt they belonged.

The poor’s immobility and inaction, however, is not to be confused with content. Instead, it is their segregation and marginalization that have made them feel that national politics was simply a game in which they were not an actor.

As humans, we tend to overly simplify concepts. We generalize things to make it easier for our minds to understand. What is more dangerous is that we pit concepts against one another. So, not only do we think of all poor communities as one unified whole that thinks, acts and talks like one another, we also see that if being rich is a positive thing, then being poor is inherently bad. Thus, if a well-off person is called ibn nas (son of people), what does that make the poor?

Let us not then wonder at how our revolution turned out so far from our expectations. For dictatorship is not exclusively a state phenomenon; it is a phenomenon that resides in every house, neighborhood, and city.

Omar Ali is a student of political science at the University of Toronto currently doing a research internship at Arab-West Report (AWR), an electronic magazine and database founded in 1997 to foster understanding between people of different cultures and convictions.

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