Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. Currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society, Prof. El-Shazli has 25 years of international experience in political and economic development, including democracy promotion programs and support for independent trade unions. She has worked with trade unions, political parties, and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The views expressed here are her own.
Egypt has become a land of stark, astounding contradictions. There is so little stability that political pundits cannot predict or even explain what is happening in the political sphere or society. As it is in politics, it is in daily life. Some examples:
Driving in Cairo has become the art of the detour. Demonstrations and protests can materialize any time of day and anywhere. If a protesting mass of humanity does not impede your way, then one of the new cement block walls will. These walls are erected by the government across major streets to contain demonstrations. Surely the time is right for some inventor to launch a new app — “Avoid Protests – Egypt” — to guide drivers and protesters alike.
Times are not tough for everyone. In the affluent areas of Cairo, youngsters still sport the latest fashions, shoppers carry home their purchases, and restaurants brim with high class clientele. New restaurants are opening and one even sells fancy “cupcakes,” the craze imported from the US. One would hardly believe that, for the average Egyptian, the country is indeed sinking into a financial abyss. But that is what’s happening.
At banks, the official exchange rate is $1 U.S. = 7 Egyptian pounds (LE), but outside of the exchange offices one U.S. dollar will buy LE7.5 or LE8. The Egyptian Central Bank has placed severe limits on the purchase of U.S. dollars, including by persons who plan to travel abroad.
Although the accuracy of government figures can be suspect, it is estimated that the average weekly salary for government employees (converted to U.S. dollars) ranges from $171 to $228. A factory worker with 5-6 years experience earns an average of $214. In this context, the prices of consumer goods change weekly – last week, the price of a can of tuna rose around 50 percent. Chicken is now roughly $4.20/lb., while meat is around $9/lb. At these prices, how much meat can the average worker buy after paying rent and other living expenses?
When talking to various persons — taxi drivers, workers in the industrial cities, urban professionals — one finds that they often ask: “What is in the minds of the MB (Muslim Brotherhood)? What is their game plan or ultimate goal?”
To these Egyptians, MB leaders seem interested only in consolidating power, although they coat their agenda with a thin veneer of piety. How, they ask, does it help anyone to let the country deteriorate at all levels?
Some wonder whether, when Egypt hits bottom, the MB plans to rebuild it according to its own vision of Islam. The Brotherhood already has clashed with Al-Azhar, the most revered and respected of Islamic Sunni religious institutions, over doctrinal and policy issues. Is that not a strange diversion for leaders of a country facing deep economic, political and social crises? One would think that the MB and Al-Azhar would be allies. Not so.
Against this background of anxiety and uncertainty, municipal services are an unlikely rallying point. Summer, with its soaring temperatures, has descended upon Egypt. The unreliable electrical supply has become the “lightning rod” that brings unlikely groups together. Businesses, such as butcher shops, grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants, are uniting to protest the daily outages caused by a lack of fuel and an abundance of mismanagement. No power means no refrigeration, air conditioning or fans for hours at a time. The unrelieved heat ruins their goods and cripples their livelihoods. With high heat, high living costs, and a political impasse, a long difficult summer lies ahead for Egyptians.
Workers, through their unions, also protest conditions. Some these protests are met with police brutality. Recently, workers at Raga’a, factory complex in Ramadan City, peacefully protested the firing of their local union leaders. Such dismissals are a standard way to attack the independent labor movement. Workers at the Sadat City’s Alexandria Factory of Spinning and Weaving protested management’s refusal to negotiate over arbitrarily large cuts in wages, which were designed to cover social insurance payments that are one year in arrears. The local union leader was taken into custody by the local prosecutor.
According to Al-Jazeera:
Egypt’s textile factories were already suffering when former President Hosni Mubarak was in power. Then hundreds closed. Now the situation is much worse and the number of factories shutting down is rising fast. Since the revolution, many cotton farmers have turned to other crops. So factories are importing raw materials from India and Pakistan. And the government has imposed a tariff on imports. Across Egypt about 30,000 textile workers have lost their job over the last two years.
Amid these deteriorating conditions, there remain MB supporters who insist that the Morsi government needs more time to implement reforms; to that argument, the growing response is: “nonsense.” A new petition campaign – “Tamarod (Arabic for “rebellion”) — which urges citizens to “withdraw confidence” from Morsi, has gathered 7 million signatures, nearly halfway to its goal of 15 million signature by June 30.
On June 30, the first anniversary of Morsi’s presidency, there are plans for widespread demonstrations and the mass display of red flags from every balcony, street corner and car. Why red? That color is freighted with significance in this soccer-loving country. Nearly everyone knows a “red card” call by an official means that a player has committed a gross foul and is ejected from the game. Protesters hope that President Morsi, while he may have a tin ear for politics, knows what a red card is.
- Heba F. Al-Shazli