Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Poverty, corruption pushes Egyptians to breaking point

Three years ago, when I travelled through Egypt, I had an enlightening conversation with an Egyptian. He was working as a guide, although he had a master’s degree in Egyptology, and judging by his articulateness (and I am talking about his English), could easily have held a university post. Because he came across as a person who would not be intimidated by questions about his country, I asked him about the reasons for the glaring, stark contrasts between rich and poor in the country.

It was as if I had punctured a balloon, and everything it contained just came pouring out. He told me in no uncertain terms that a revolution was brewing in the country because of precisely what my question had focused on, namely the conspicuous material, economic disparities in Egypt. He pointed out that the president of the country, Hosni Mubarak, appointed his wealthy businessman cronies to political posts, which they used to enrich themselves and their families even further (sound familiar?) while ordinary Egyptians often had to live in squalor, and even where this was not the case, people had to work extremely long hours to sustain themselves and their families. He — the guide — was a case in point. Although he was a highly qualified man, he had to work for at least 14 hours a day as a tourist guide to look after himself and his family.

The guide seems to have been correct about the simmering revolution — it is happening in Egypt as I write, and by all accounts the people are not about to stand down, or back off, even in the face of Mubarak’s police and army. In fact, it seems as if members of the army (specifically the tank personnel) are on friendly terms with the protesters, judging by the way the latter were posing on the tanks for photographs, with smiling army personnel looking on or chatting to the protesters. I would interpret this as a sign of their support for the uprising.

I understood very well what our guide meant when he referred to the conditions that were conducive to an uprising of the people, and I mean the poor people. After all, the French Revolution of 1789 was also prompted by economic conditions of abject poverty among the ordinary people — conditions that were cynically allowed to grow into something so unbearable that the French people rose up against the aristocracy and royalty, with bloody consequences. One easily forgets that economic conditions are intimately intertwined with political exigencies, or, to put it another way, the economic conditions under which people live are always already politicised, and Egypt is no exception. Sooner or later, the breaking point has to come, when the people apparently just do not have any more to lose, and therefore put their lives on the line for freedom (at many levels: freedom is a complex concept) — an instantiation of what Lacan called “the revolutionary’s choice: freedom or death”.

The fact that the US (which finds itself in a difficult position because of its past support for Mubarak’s regime, given its strategic Middle-Eastern importance) has called for a peaceful transition to democracy, while partly applicable to the Egyptian situation, is misleading, because it is not only a matter of Egypt deserving better than a military dictatorship. Sure, like every country in the world, it deserves a democratic government, but one that will look for ways to empower the poor economically; ways that are acceptable to the ordinary people. Apparently it was the wealthy businessmen in Mubarak’s cabinet who had engineered the liberalisation of economic policies in the country, from which they undoubtedly benefitted, but with hardly any benefit to ordinary people.

I recall that, at the time of my Egyptian visit, I was surprised, and annoyed, at the incessant insistence, on the part of every Egyptian with whom one interacted for some reason, on receiving a tip, and very often the tips that were expected were not small. Later I understood better — this was the sole income of many Egyptians; without getting tips from tourists, they would starve. I also remember how disconcerted I was at Luxor, after leaving the riverboat on which we were sailing up the Nile, to discover that the facade of economic respectability on the banks of the river and across the street from there, did not stretch very far into town. Only a few streets from the river the conditions were those of abject poverty (similar to those that exist in many South African shanty towns), and as far as we walked, we were followed by strings of begging children. The Red Sea resort where we spent a few days was even more conspicuously upmarket, catering for tourists as far as hotels went, and displaying the opulent (holiday) homes of the wealthy among the Egyptians all along the river bank and on the beachfront. This was clearly not a politically and economically “sustainable” situation, and that was three years ago.

Needless to say, governments that indulge in practices of self-enrichment for their top officials, often under conditions of economic favouritism towards certain “connected” business people, who reward the politicos richly in return, have only themselves to blame if dissatisfaction among ordinary people turns ugly. I hope that the ruling classes in other countries, where conditions resemble those in Egypt, take careful note of the economic causality involved in the Egyptian uprising.