To test my theory on how far apart the upper and lower classes in Egypt are, I often jolt upper class women by asking them if they know any women who have suffered FGM (female genital mutilation). Indignant but still intrigued, all respond that they don’t know of any.
I refute their denial by convincing them that indeed they do: the doorman’s wife, the delivery boy’s sister, the daughters of the helper at the office. I don’t stop there; I continue to shock them. I ask if they realise that 92 percent of married women in Egypt are circumcised. As though they live in a different country, the women are aghast, but they immediately recognise how disconnected the upper and lower classes are.
If these women know a handful of circumcised women only superficially, then they are living amongst the other eight percent of Egyptians unaware of and having very little to do with the remaining 92 percent of Egyptians. You see only the poor and the uneducated get circumcised.
Let’s view further examples. On his programme “Ten PM,” Wael El-Ebrashi posed a question: do you support the prohibition of or a change in the law on contempt of religion? We neither know the number of responders nor the validity of the survey conducted, but the result was staggering nonetheless: 99.2 percent were against the change in the law.
This while just about every educated person in Egypt is against the law and its repercussions on thinkers and academics. Only then does one realise the magnitude of the gap between the educated and non-educated. Indeed, education, or the lack of it, is the key factor in the ongoing class segregation issue.
In the last four decades or so, many private, pricey schools and universities, mostly English ones, were established. These schools provide not only language competence but exposure to state-of-the-art learning strategies and techniques. While these schools and universities enrich students with competence and proficiency, public schools seat five on a bench and 70 in a classroom—no music or physical education classes and no recess ground—more importantly, no teaching.
While at it, compare the dress code in private and public schools as another case in point. In public schools almost 100 percent of students wear a white hijab, including 7- or 8-year olds. This occurs while students in private schools are hijabless, enjoying a co-ed education, something public schools wouldn’t dream of implementing.
At the same time, listen to the creme de la creme speak on television. Anyone who is anyone in Egypt comes from these high-end schools and universities because they, as students, were given the confidence and knowledge to move on in life.
Most ministers, bank presidents, and company CEOs, as they discuss crucial matters, flip between English and Arabic to elaborate on points of view, identifying their schooling background. Chances are the uneducated and poverty stricken cannot clue in; they neither have the language nor the skills to even comprehend the discussion.
With such opportunities, the rich get better education, and hence, richer, and the poor get no education, and, hence, poorer. As gated compounds are built across Cairo, the informal settlements expand in space and deterioration. Pools, spas, tennis courts, and golf courses are juxtaposed against areas lacking in basics: running water, paved roads, schools, and medical care. The gap, as you can see, is getting wider and wider.
Despite or because of all this, Egyptians are very generous with their money. Muslims and Christians donate lavishly. Many a family in Egypt practices the guarantor system in solidarity with the needy. Every month such families provide provisions to poor families, which wouldn’t have been able to function otherwise. But that is as far as it goes. The upper class give, feel good about themselves, and keep their distance. The onus for change lies elsewhere.
Still, though the rich may rarely mingle with the poor, the human being is respected and appreciated. And since Egypt doesn’t have a caste system such as the one in India, which segments society into classes from birth, change is possible in Egypt after all.
I just gave the reader a simplified picture of not only the wide class distinction in Egypt but also the role education plays in determining social levels. Improving the education system and teacher standards will provide students with the opportunity and the know how to move up the ladder and break the glass ceiling. The poor, if educated well, can bridge the gap towards a better standard of living.
The writer is author of Cairo Rewind: The First Two Years of Egypt's Revolution.