The rise and fall of Egypt’s middle class

The Egyptian middle class has gone through several changes throughout Egypt’s modern history, raising questions about its current ability to lead society toward progress.

al-monitor A view shows luxurious houses at the gated-community city of Palm Hills, 20 km (13 miles) west of Cairo, June 26, 2008.  Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.

Topics covered

middle class, egyptian unemployment, egyptian society, egyptian economy, economy, business in egypt

May 13, 2014

The early signs of the Egyptian middle class first appeared when, in the early 19th century, the regime in modern Egypt allowed Egyptians to occupy positions in the public sector (the army and civil service). One century later, this class was capable of participating in political and cultural life. This class’ participation was materialized in the first half of the 20th century through the establishment of political parties, newspapers, universities and industries, and then by leading the revolution against colonialism. The avant-garde of this class was formed of people who had the opportunity to receive education that enabled them to occupy positions in the state bureaucracy and to practice specialized professions. Historically, this group merged with categories of traders and owners of agricultural lands to form a middle class bloc, which played an important role in Egypt's modern history. This bloc also led the social and economic transformation processes, particularly after the 1952 revolution that empowered [this class] and enlarged its base following the expansion of education and the state intervention in the management of the economy. This class — represented by its political and cultural elites and forerunners — became historically responsible for governing the country and had a role very similar to that of the capitalist class in leading development in Western societies.

Two awakenings in one century

The middle class was, to a large extent, homogeneous and coherent. It achieved its historical successes (the liberal awakening in the 1920s and the socialist awakening in the 1960s) through this cohesion and homogeneity, which no longer exist today. With the policy of economic openness — which began in the 1970s — and the entry of Egypt into the capital market, discrepancies started to emerge within the middle class. They appeared in such a way that economic transformations allowed a group of adventurers from this class to achieve excellence. On the other hand, the difficult economic conditions of middle-class people with fixed and low incomes led to the deterioration of their living standards to a point that they felt they fit into the categories of the poor. Between these two classes, some categories maintained their position with a lot of effort and hard work.

There is no doubt that this dislocation within the middle class structure was coupled with disintegration of its cultural and ideological intellectual circles. Multiple identities emerged in this class, which no longer constituted a homogenous entity but rather a mixture of several colors and shapes. This is not reflected in the differences in the intellectual and ideological orientations only but also in lifestyles, daily practices, rituals, and patterns of behavior-guiding values.

Entrepreneurs are at the top of this class; they have occupied the throne of power and authority for long periods of time and they reaped fortunes. They make up a separate, relatively small, segment of the middle class which often live in luxury homes in the suburbs and on the outskirts of the city. They live a life of luxury and extravagance, excessively enjoy all the pleasures of life and have exaggerated rituals of consumption and celebration. They retain patriarchal traditional values inclined toward focus on personal interests and reproduction of old feudal-relations. They rely on subordination and loyalty relationships, on networks of acquaintances and relatives, and constantly seek profit, senior positions within these networks, and the acquisition of the greatest wealth, power, and influence. The context in which this segment lives, as well as the nature of its adopted values led to the exclusion of other groups, especially the most vulnerable categories in the middle class and the poor.

This is how this [entrepreneurial] segment reproduces its social, economic and political privilege to remain unchallenged in the top position. The second top category of the middle class is a larger segment of specialized professionals such as doctors, police officers, university professors, engineers, lawyers, technocrats and others. This segment is witnessing existential anxiety in terms of its perception of life and destiny. It aspires to higher standings in search of wealth and power, but constantly fears the possibility of falling into deprivation (falling to lower social classes). It is in light of this duality that the lifestyle and values of this segment are formed. This group strives to secure proper housing for themselves and their children. This is why it spends significant amounts of money on the acquisition of real estate while giving great care to ensure an outstanding education for their children. On a different note, this segment refrains from political action but rushes into it when asked to. Moreover, when some of its members are authorized to enter the world of politics by occupying ministerial positions, parliamentary positions as MP or senior positions, they do so within the scope of a patriarchal, subordination network created by the upper segment.

It's worth mentioning in this respect that this segment succeeds in managing political action, engineering its laws, making its speeches and consequently has abandoned the general values that ​​establishes the principles of justice and equity.

This is the largest segment forming the backbone of the middle class, therefore it shows no sign of internal harmony, especially when it comes to ideas and beliefs. Instead, we find internal differences reflecting different political identities. In this segment, the reformist movement thrives in line with the upper segment and its aspirations. This movement had altered its methods and mechanisms over time. It smoothly went from Nasserism, to Sadatism, to Mubarakism and beyond. The segment also includes a movement that mixes politics with religion through contradictory mechanisms of coalition, rejection, protest and conspiracy.

There is also the socialist movement, which remains marginally isolated. Although all these political movements orbit within this large middle class segment, and despite the political sub-identities it imposed and the ensuing differences in lifestyles and trends, this does not obscure the fact that this segment and its internal interactions have an impact on social and political life.

The decay

The analysis of the middle class cannot be reduced to the discussion of this large segment. There is a larger segment which is even more important. It is composed of employees and low-income workers. The disruptive capitalist conditions made them fall to the bottom of the social strata. This segment is the largest one within the middle class and it is expanding by the day. In terms of their education and jobs, these workers belong to the middle class, but they are closer to the poor segments in terms of quality of life. This contradictory difficult position determines the character of this segment and its living situation.

This segment is not only experiencing an existential living crises but it also suffers deprivation and the constant fear of falling to the lower classes. This prompted it to adopt the values ​​and rituals that, on the one hand, protect it against the evils of this fear, and that prevent it from falling to lower classes on the other.

These workers are keen on teaching their children, but a large proportion of them are enrolled in public schools and do not receive an outstanding education at the university level, thus a large portion of them end up unemployed.

Fathers and mothers are dedicated to their work, and they may take on additional jobs to obtain more income enabling them to cope with the growing consumer pressure. This segment tries hard to hang on to the upper segment, not to imitate its methods in life but in order to obtain benefits, the most important of which is ensuring its children can enroll in government jobs. Resorting to religion is one of the mechanisms adopted by this segment to adapt to the conditions of deprivation. Religiousness in this situation — even if as a matter of form — confers confidence and helps them accept their difficult living conditions. Therefore, if the higher segment produces leaders of political movements, including religious movements, this segment constitutes the supply that provides these leaders with the supporting popular bases.

Furthermore, the middle class has been, for more than a century, the key to politics and governance in Egypt. It thus bore the historical responsibility in achieving the awakenings. This class proposed renaissance projects, which mostly failed. This happened at the height of its power, coherence and homogeneity. What is its current position, now that it includes multiples identities, the objectives of its members diverge and fragmentation is threatening the coherence and homogeneity of its structure? I think that this is the question that we must ask. Are we on the threshold of a new phase in which everyone longs to have a new Baathist regime? Will this class be able to abandon the images of fragmentation which taints its contemporary social and cultural structure, and to achieve a harmony leading to a consensus over the public interest, public goods, and public exchange? Will the middle class — and the vanguard of its elites — become aware of their historical responsibility in making progress, and develop awareness that brings society together around one objective? I think that it is inevitable. This aspiration is the most honorable of all and without it, destruction and chaos will prevail.

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