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Book review: Should we say farewell to the middle class in Egypt?

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 21 Apr 2016
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Al-Tabaqa Al-Mutawseta wa Al-Taghaiyur Al-Igtimaai fi Misr (“The Middle Class and Social Change in Egypt”) by Dr. Ahmed Hussein Hassan, Mahrousa Center for Publishing, Cairo 2016. pp.388.

Historically, the middle class in Egypt was not just a class that lies between the rich class of the landed gentry and the capitalists on one hand and the poor classes of workers, peasants and others.

Since its formulation, it has been the core source of society's intellectuals, creative people and technocrats. Most of the intellectual and political movements came out of the middle class. The sons of this class were the quickest to express society's dreams and needs, and even its defeats and victories.

In this context, perhaps the academic nature of this book doesn't suit the layman reader, as it is directed mainly at academic circles.

In spite of this, it enjoys a special importance and raises a number of issues in synchronisation with the current economic crisis, which threatens to impoverish sections of this class.

Anyway, the theoretical part doesn't take up much of this 400-page plus volume. Afterwards, the author presents the evidence which he relied on in order to reach the study’s conclusions. 

Through the study's seven chapters the author attempts to answer a decisive question: Has the middle class collapsed in contemporary Egyptian society?

He also observes the social and economic transformations in the Egyptian middle class’s structure, its awareness of social policies and its repercussions.

He also devotes a significant chapter to the political and civilian participation of this class, whether in relation to its impact on political parties or participation patterns in syndicates and elections. The study extends to topical subjects such as the non-participation of this class in the last legislative elections.

On another level, the study ends with a number of conclusions including, for instance, the effect of some radical transformations in the economy since the 1970s in the middle class’ position and existence.

The “Open Door” economic policy, which was applied in the 1970s, followed by structural adjustment policies, represented a severe regression from the policies of the previous decade. The 1960s witnessed policies that were biased in favour of the middle and working classes.

Measures and transformations ran in accelerated succession: dismantling and neglecting the public sector and consequently laying off the vast majority of its workers and its employees; the state abandoning the commitment to employ university graduates; the state facilitating immigration to oil-rich countries.

In addition, the study points out that, over the last thirty years, the state has issued numerous pieces of legislation, such as the foreign investment laws, the lifting of custodianship law, and the law determining the relation between the landlord and the tenant in agricultural lands and residential units.

These radical changes led to "parallel changes in the formation and volume of the urban and rural middle classes, their value systems, elements of awareness and the efficiency of its societal roles," says Hassan.

The study draws attention to the decline of the function of education along with the professional status related to it, accompanied by the dwindling governmental spending on education.

At the same time, middle class families still cling to education, count on it to protect their sons’ future, and consider it one of the most important channels to attain social mobility.

Due to the unemployment among those who had higher education or were high school graduates, the social value of education has declined, in parallel with a change in the process of social mobility.

It was transformed from a collective process from social standing, and instead is now characterised with randomness and individualism. In order to achieve social mobility, “the illegal mechanisms began to crowd out the legal ones,” to quote the study.

The study also draws attention to the current reluctance of this class to participate in politics. It argues that should members of this class fear they will be impoverished, they will begin to feel hostile towards the state and its institutions. In this context, their confidence in parties and political symbols will wane.
 

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