After this week’s unfortunate events, several people asked me when would Egypt’s revolution(s) end and when will we see peace and security restored? The problem is that the revolution(s) were not about toppling a leader, a dictator, who remained in power for over thirty years. It was much more complicated than that.
Egypt’s “revolutions” are not over and other waves of unrest may just be around the corner. The reason I believe this to be true is that the basis for the on-going conflict has at its core a struggle between the haves and the have not’s. Fundamentally, the disappearance of the middle class is at the heart of what Egypt is struggling to deal with today. It is our income distribution problems that will continue to haunt us. Unlike the 1970s and the 1980s, when Egypt followed very strict Socialist policies, the majority of the populace was either middle class, or slightly below the poverty line. Extreme poverty as we know it today was not widespread. Wealth, decadence, lavish estates, fancy cars, yachts, and the jet-setter life style did not exist either.
But, the Egypt of the 1990s changed our society fundamentally. That Egypt became beholden to the few and not the many. It allowed a weak governance structure to promote graft and nepotism in ways Egypt never knew. In its inception, a select few were given lucrative contracts to import goods and services for the state that made them millionaires, if not billionaires virtually overnight. Imagine having the sole import rights to buy wheat in the billions of dollars for subsidized bread that you would re-sell to the Ministry of Supply at a premium. Better yet, imagine being the sole manufacturer of propane in a country dependent on botagas, or among the limited number of state authorized importers of solar and diesel. You import and the state buys from you as a monopoly provider, what a racket.
Then, there were the monopolies created in sectors like steel, and to some degree cement, creating another set of billionaires. This was done in tandem when prime real estate owned by the state was sold to select individuals for pennies on the dollar. These individuals would then resell this land to developers making incredible premiums literally making them multi millionaires overnight. And, this is why most of Egypt’s richest people today don’t have a business to speak of. They have wealth, but often it is untraceable, or only traceable to one or more shady transactions. Nothing is manufactured, something is bought on the cheap, usually from the state, then sold at a premium, or bought on the cheap, and then sold to the state at a premium. The running joke in Egypt when you get invited to someone’s home, let me rephrase that, to someone’s palace, or go on a ride on a friend’s yacht, is that the “misses” must have been really good at saving the grocery money over the years. A senior government official once had the gaulle to say to me that he made his millions from teaching business at the American University in Beirut. Sadly, the teaching profession has not been that lucrative for me.
On top of all this, what have Egypt’s “nouveau riche” done with the money they have acquired? Well, they have had a tendency to live in gated communities all over the country, pay exuberant amounts to be members of social clubs usually on golf courses built in the middle of the desert, and many have tended to inter-marry to strengthen their financial positions. Now you struggle to differentiate a legitimate businessman from a crony, better stated, a crook.
The crooks are many, and the majority have been untouched by the “revolutions”. They remain in their gated compounds like sitting ducks on golf courses while everyone else lives in squalor on just $2 a day; that is if you have any livelihood at all. The rich drink their bottled water in their inaccessible social clubs, and the rest in squalor, drink tainted tap water laced in urine and no Doctor in Egypt I know wonders why so many people have hepatitis C and D.
This is why Egypt’s revolutions are not over and the country remains a time bomb waiting to explode. The poor are becoming more emboldened and are now using crime to get what they feel is theirs. A country that never heard of kidnappings or carjacking is now accepting this as the norm.
Make no mistake that this is not simply about Islamists and liberals, absolutely not. This is as much about rich and poor and the millions that feel they have been looted and are demanding restitution. There is an Egyptian proverb that says “if you look down at your ‘dinner plate’ and find nothing you look up”. And, who are you looking up to? The heavens actually in search of celestial justice. The bottom line is, the Islamists have tended in the majority to represent the poor and to a great degree the liberals represent the rich. This fight, in part, is not just about ideology, it’s about wealth and how and who acquired it. Those that acquired wealth through legitimate means, through years of sacrifice and detriment, now struggle to differentiate themselves from their neighbors living in the same luxury compounds. In the eyes of those living in abject poverty, the disenfranchised, if you’re driving the expensive car, or living in that fancy abode, you must be a crook, and the money you have you must have stolen from me. How sad.
In fact during the first revolution, most poor Egyptians were waiting for their pay day when all the money stolen by figure heads from the previous regime was to be recovered. The “bawab” (door man) in our building in Cairo talked to me at the time about restitution and he quoted a figure per family of what he thinks he and his children are owed. His going number at the time was LE 35,000 per family ($5,000). The science behind my “bawab’s” numbers came from news reports of embezzlements from top former regime officials divided by the total population. When my “bawab” walked me through his analysis, his logic was compelling.
Clearly, these revolutions are in part is about the haves and the have not’s, and the turmoil in Egypt will not end until the poor find a way of resolving their grievances after having been disenfranchised by a system that chose a select few and handed them the keys to the store. Either they agree to give the keys back on amicable terms, or someone will eventually burn the place down.
It must be tough today for all of those Egyptians living in gated communities on the golf course, whether or not their homes, or estates, were acquired by legitimate or illegitimate means. They are all potentially sitting ducks in a country that is boiling over in envy. And, the revolutions won’t end until a proper reckoning of what transpired especially over the past decades is finally brought to closure.
OK, I seem to be getting a litnay of requests to explain where the economy is today. My two cents worth on what needs to be our singular focus is below.