Egyptian people demand social justice
Photo: AFP

'Not beggars, but don't want to be thieves'

Egypt 2011: Almost half survive on $2 a day while many live in cemeteries, on rooftops. Men postpone marriage, commit suicide over financial troubles, and as corruption runs free, despair grows deep. Now they raise their voices in agony, demanding change

The thousands demonstrating in the streets of Egypt's cities and threatening to bring down President Hosni Mubarak represent a troubled country, filled with poverty, corruption, and deep despair which have been going on for decades.


Jeffrey Fleishman, the Cairo bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, chronicled many stories about the hardships in Egypt. One such story is about paupers living in ramshackle sheds on housetops in the city.


In one article Fleishman describes a 32-year-old married man and father of five named Samir Asar, who hung himself because of financial hardships he encountered, which made his life unbearable.


The same day the article ran in the newspaper, two more men from the same region committed suicide; Another 32-year-old man and father of five, who earned only $72 per month, jumped to his death from a building, and a 31-year-old-man hung himself after his fiancée's family threatened to call of their wedding if he was not able to purchase a new apartment for her.


Statistics show that 45% of Egyptians live on $2 a day or less, and the number of suicides is measured in thousands and growing daily.


"The future is gloomy," a young man by the name of Gamal told Fleishman. "We'll go to university but will we be able to find a job once we're done? Many of my friends don't have jobs. The government isn't doing anything and all the young people are dispirited."


Two million people living in cemeteries

Many Egyptian bachelors prefer not to walk down the aisle because they cannot afford to support their future wives, according to Dr. Shmuel Bachar, a researcher of modern Egypt at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Bachar explained that poverty in Egypt is unimaginably widespread.


"There are horrific stories about poverty. Two million people live in cemeteries. Buildings collapse because of poor infrastructure and the building of more floors without permits. This is not an organized country. The bureaucracy is not working properly," he said.


On the other hand, Bachar emphasized the fact that unlike Israel, there are no homeless people living on the streets. "In Egypt there are no retirement homes. The families live together and the elderly aren't tossed out to the streets. The kids take care of them."  

'We are fed up.' Cairo rally (Photo: Reuters)


Prof. Onn Winckler from the Department of Middle East History at Haifa University claimed there is no starvation in Egypt but that the drop in the standard of living is what caused the riots to break.


"Some Egyptians live in the City of the Dead (Cairo slum) or in poorer neighborhoods, but still receive vaccines and live for 70 years. Those who are protesting belong to the middle class. They are frustrated with how bad the situation is, relatively. Everyone has internet access, they see what's going on outside and they want in on it."


Earning $3.50 a day

Frustration and despair finally erupted Tuesday. A veteran human rights activist in Egypt said, "When you survive on 300 Egyptian pounds ($51) per month you have two options: Become a beggar or a thief.


"But now the Egyptian people are sending a clear message: 'We are not beggars and we don't want to turn into thieves'". 


Only a few days before he escaped from Tunisia, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali promised his people on national television that he will create an additional 300,000 jobs within a couple of years. Mubarak made a similar promise last Saturday.


In both cases the promise was made under pressure, a kind of confession that the unprecedented rage among the people is deeply rooted in decades of lack of economic equality, in a huge gap between the wealthy political elite living in mansions with swimming pools, going to private schools and enjoying the night life at high end clubs, and the simple man trying to survive on a few pennies.


There are 18 million people living in Cairo, half of them under the age of 30. This young population is no longer content with clerical jobs. At one demonstration in country's capital, a young man brandished his university diploma, and above the tear gas clouds filling the air he shouted only one word: Work.


The Tunisia revolution began with one 26-year-old college graduate who ignited himself after police forces confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart. This economic rage quickly spread to other Arab countries. Riots broke out in Yemen, forcing the president to make fast economic changes including cutting taxes in half and imposing supervision on food prices and basic products.


In Jordan thousands rallied against high prices and unemployment, and the prime minster was quick to announce a $550 million subsidies package for gas, rice, sugar and more.


The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi published interviews with four Middle Eastern men describing the hardships of finding work. A 33-year-old Syrian man named Khaled Capon has a degree in English literature from Damascus University, but still complains he is unable to find a teaching position and therefore cannot afford to get married. "I keep hoping that tomorrow I'll get a job," he said.


Ali Suleiman from Egypt can relate. “I graduated from the university about 16 years ago, and the only jobs open to me were cleaning other people’s houses,” he said one day last week as he stood in the center of the city, offering a common lament. “I am lucky I was able to start selling newspapers. I have three daughters, and I make about 20 pounds ($3.50), a day."


No longer scared

Financial difficulties are not the only reasons the Egyptian took to the streets this past week. Anyone who has ever visited the county is familiar with the constant complaints: The police are cruel, the elections are a sham, corruptions is everywhere.


Associated Press reporter Sarah El Deeb inquired protesters as to why they are so angry. Gamal Hassanein, a 24-year-old man, talked about his violent encounter with a policeman who slapped him across the face.


"He stole my dignity with that slap," said Hassanein, who does odd jobs to make money. "We could never stand up to those officers before because we were afraid. But we're no longer willing to be silenced by our fear."


Hossam, a 23-year-old Cairo resident from the upper-middle-class Maadi neighborhood, said he thought of his cousin, who drowned seven years ago after falling out of a pedal-boat on the coast. Emergency services did not respond to a call for rescue after learning that the victim was not a foreigner, said Hossam, who declined to provide his last name for fear of retaliation.


"Why are we treated like this?" he asked. "We will get rid of this regime."


Aya Barada, a 25-year-old legal consultant wearing a blue headscarf and tight jeans, said she learned about the protests from Facebook, and relentless campaigning by activists who used Said's death as a rallying cry against the government.


"I am making good money. I personally am not suffering. But the conditions in Egypt are ... bad for me, my family, and ultimately my country."


Prof. Gabriel Warburg from the Department of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University said the demonstrators themselves do not really know what they are protesting against.


"The entire protest is against Mubarak. It's not a protest against the governance system but against the president and his partners. Egypt doesn't have a democratic legacy so this is not the demand. It's hard to believe they'll turn democratic and reinvent it after so many years."


Eran Lahav contributed to the report



פרסום ראשון: 01.31.11, 20:29
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