When Will Young, Poor Egyptians Get a Chance to Live?
Apr 22 2014
The train tracks in Ard el Lewa, Cairo
Three years after the revolution broke out, little has changed for the majority of normal Egyptians. If you want to see some physical evidence of that, the place where the train tracks cross the dusty road into west Cairo’s Ard el Lewa neighbourhood – just a few miles from Tahrir Square – isn’t a bad place to start.
It’s a poor area – much it like was before the upheaval in 2011 – and shares many similarities with the rest of Cairo; densely packed with concrete apartment buildings, thrown up without planning permission (or planning of any kind) in the last third of the 20th century as Egyptians left their rural villages and headed for the big city. There are makeshift stalls clustered around the rail crossing, selling light bulbs, tea, can openers and oranges, ripening and rotting in the heat.
Just inside Ard el Lewa, a row of tuk-tuks await their passengers. These machines – a cab grafted onto a motorbike – are a totally illegal but widespread form of transport in the narrow streets of Cairo's poorer suburbs. Men mill about in fluorescent workwear and hardhats, their jackets carrying the logo of their employer, Orascom Construction. A nearby billboard announces that the flyover they are building has been contracted by the armed forces. This is an economy built on casual labour, in which the major beneficiaries are now, as they have been for years, whoever can siphon money out of the state.
Things are the same here as they’ve always been, because while the country’s leader may have changed twice, its economy is still as lousy as it ever was. Former military chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is expected to win the presidential elections in late May by a landslide, but he too will inherit the economic sludge that overwhelmed his predecessors, Mubarak and Morsi.
Walid and Mustafa
Walid's story is pretty typical of the men working here. Now 24, he has worked as a tuk-tuk driver since he was 18. For the four years prior he was a tailor. Each day, after hiring a vehicle, he takes home 50 to 60 LE (about £4.50), which is better than what his dad earns as a day labourer – around 30 to 40 LE (about £3.10) – if he's lucky enough to be picked up by a contractor.
At 19, Walid was engaged to be married but had to break it off. Before raising his own family his first obligation is to support his four sisters and pay their dowries. There wasn't enough money to do both. The girl didn't wait, marrying someone else before Walid could get his other affairs in order.
Walid's friend Mustafa jumps into a tuk-tuk – he's out of work for now, like more than 13 percent of Egyptians. He starts arguing with the owner of the motor-taxi about damages to the vehicle; his main complaint is security, or the lack of it. Men sometimes stop the vehicle and ask for money, 2 LE (about 17p) for "protection". The police take ten times that amount each time – a more expensive version of the same deal.
Here, the word "government" is used to mean "police". Apart from the state schools, which pack up to 80 into a classroom – 55 in the school Mustafa attended – the state doesn’t have much of an active presence in most people's lives. Medical treatment is free in theory, but medicines run out and then people have to buy their own. State schools are so bad that even the poor pay for the private classes that impoverished teachers run to supplement their income.
On the other side of the tracks, one of the construction workers – Abdu, 19 – walks to a tea stall to fetch a brew for his workmates. The company recruited him from a village near Beni Suef, which, he says, has now lost around half of its young men, most of them leaving to find work elsewhere. He lives with seven other labourers from his village in a two-bedroom flat. His basic pay is 40 LE (£3.40), but he can make an extra 25 LE if he works a 12-hour day.
"Even animals shouldn't work 12 hours," interrupts the guy from the next stall while he pours himself a cup. This is Mohamed, who, at 42 and with four children, makes about the same amount selling light bulbs that he has bought broken and repaired himself. Like the tuk-tuks, his stall is unlicensed and illegal. These days, he says, the police are too busy to harass him, but before the revolution he would have to pick up what he could and leg it down the street if the police came along.
These guys are typical of around 40 percent of Egyptians, trying to support a family on a monthly wage of about 1,200 LE (around £100) in jobs that are often borderline illegal. Of course, their illegality doesn’t affect how many people work these professions, but it does make it easier for police to extort bribes.
Inflation is at nearly 10 percent, while food prices are rising at about 15 percent per year. The average Egyptian family spends 40 percent of its income on food, so the fact that it’s now two-thirds more expensive than it was at the beginning of 2010 may explain why one-third of Egyptian children suffer from malnutrition.
If Walid, Mustafa, Abdu, Mohamed and their families represent one side of the contemporary Egyptian economy, the half-built flyover represents another: a coalition of the army, wealthy businessmen and Gulf money. Unsurprisingly, the very people who supported, funded and carried out the coup against Mohamed Morsi last year are the ones now benefiting from the regime they installed.
Construction of the flyover in Ard el Lewa
In November, President Adly Mansour decreed that in "emergency" cases contracts for major public infrastructure projects could be awarded to a preferred contractor, skipping a competitive bidding process. Between September and December more than $1.5 billion (£8.9 million) in contracts went to the military, which operates a huge business empire, worth at least one percent of the GDP and perhaps even several times that. A veritable state within a state, it controls 87 percent of land in Egypt, manufactures everything from pasta to washing machines, pays no taxes and has access to conscripted labour. It also has more tanks than the entire of Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America combined, the pointless fruit of billions of dollars of military aid from the United States funnelled back into arms manufacturers.
Senior officers, unlike regular soldiers, have access to a network of luxury leisure facilities. A new army leisure club includes a football stadium, tennis and squash courts and an Olympic-size swimming pool. A former Western diplomat who was entertained at several of these clubs told me that they were of a four to five-star standard.
For this flyover, the military sub-contracted the building work to Orascom Construction Industries (OCI), one of the biggest companies in Egypt. Naguib Sawris, brother of the hugely wealthy head of OCI, backed Tamarod, the movement that called for the demonstrations that brought down Morsi. Some say that the ascendance of the military now is bad news for large private businesses, who will win fewer of the primary contracts themselves; perhaps, but they’re clearly still part of the mix.
Much of this building work is being paid for with money provided by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which began backing the military-installed government hours after their takeover was announced. Without that backing, the current government wouldn’t have survived, as Qatar and Turkey – which had both supported the Muslim Brotherhood administration – withdrew their support following Morsi’s ousting. The UAE-based Arabtec Construction has now entered into a $40 billion (£34 billion) partnership with Egypt's army to build one million new housing units in the next three years.
Egypt today is an odd mixture of the top-down 1950s development state built by Nasser and the privatised market mayhem unleashed by his successors, Sadat and Mubarak. Since the 1970s, a group of businessmen have enriched themselves via state assets sold off on the cheap and lucrative public sector contracts, Gulf-owned companies have increased their presence in key sectors and ex-military men have taken up powerful positions in business and politics.
Nowadays, many government jobs are secured for life and carry with them benefits (like health insurance) that you won’t find in other lines of work, but the pay is so low that public employees have to moonlight elsewhere. A friend of mine who’s been a doctor for six years has a basic wage of 1,200 LE per month, less than Walid makes driving the tuk-tuk six days a week. A job – a real job with a contract, not the casual work undertaken by the majority of the men in Ard el Lewa – is an ambition not because it pays well (because it doesn’t), but because it offers a modicum of security.
Walid is applying for a job as a plumber in a government office. If he gets it he’ll take home half what he makes with his tuk-tuk, but he’ll also receive subsidised medical treatment and – once he’s been in the job for six months – can quit and return whenever he likes.
None of the men milling around the Ard el Lewa crossing express any political views, except Mohamed the lightbulb seller, who says: “The whole country is corrupt, just like it has always been.” But they have one definitive answer when I ask them what the various governments of the last three years have done to make their lives easier: nothing. "All of them are rubbish," adds Mustafa.
Clashes in Cairo in during last year's military takeover
While the men I met were hesitant to discuss politics, a substantial minority have taken to the streets to voice their discontent. The revolution that toppled Mubarak had social justice and "bread" – which, in Egyptian Arabic, is also the word for life – as two of its three main demands. When I was out on the streets on the 30th of June last year, amid the demonstrations that would topple Morsi a few days later, I noticed the huge numbers of poor Egyptians in attendance, mostly there because they hadn’t seen any kind of social justice.
Understandably, Sisi has expressed fears about becoming president just as Egypt’s “financial support from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates [seems] likely to dry up”. Shortly before he resigned from his position at the head of the military to run for president, Sisi was visited by a group of agricultural workers imploring him to stand. "Sisi expressed his fear of the impatience of Egyptians because of the economic difficulties facing the country," a source told one newspaper.
Sisi has talked about the need for austerity and more hard work from everyone. "Egypt’s youth should not be thinking about when they will be able to get married or when will they ‘live’ – they need to build the country first,” he said in a recent speech.
And it's probably true that, without the massive external financial help, there's no way that Egypt could have a totally smooth economic transition. But Sisi has never mentioned the crony capitalism that’s now strangled Egypt's youth for decades, let alone show any sign that he intends to challenge it. For Walid, Mustafa, Abdu and Mohamed, their families and millions like them, that's kind of a shame. Because as much as Sisi tries to shut them down, they want to know when they’re going to have a chance to live.
More from Egypt:
WATCH – Egypt Under Sisi
WATCH – Egypt After Morsi