Last month a debate erupted on social media in Egypt. The behaviour of a TV journalist and her questions to a deprived teenager led some to say that the worldview of the Egyptian middle classes was calamitous.
It was heartless, ill-informed, and terribly reactionary, some people said, referring to the journalist’s apparent lack of awareness of the young person’s problems.
The predicament of the middle classes is a global problem. Globalisation is putting a lot of pressure on the middle classes in Egypt, and even if they are paid to Western standards they often have to work much more than in the past and their future is uncertain.
Neoliberals are aware that globalisation can be very harsh on the poor, and they have tried to find recipes to help them. However, more often than not the middle classes are left to survive alone.
Consider, for instance, the reforms of the universities. Everyone will have to pay much higher fees, but many scholarships and grants are available that mitigate the impact of these reforms on the poor. The middle classes, on the other hand, have to sort out their affairs without help.
The Egyptian middle classes are under severe pressure. Today’s neoliberal economic policies mean they have to pay much more for goods and services, and their purchasing power is in sharp decline.
The government tries to protect the poor, but it considers the middle classes to be people who save their money, and so it tries to incite or to force them to spend it.
This means that middle-class savings are diminishing at a worrying rate. There is also no end in sight as everybody fears the next tax increase.
Some colleagues, including one close friend, think such increases are long overdue. The middle classes have had too many undeserved privileges, they say, and even the lower strata of the middle classes have led privileged lives.
The financial difficulties of many public-sector bodies and of many nationalised industries stem from the work force, and in some of them two-thirds of the staff are paid without even showing up.
Such people have access to the safety net of the civil service, and they are paid, even if modestly, often to do nothing. They also never have the decency to resign.
For too long, the wages and bonuses of the higher strata of the civil service in Egypt have been scandalously high. Some senior civil servants have earned thousands of pounds for attending a monthly meeting of a steering committee, and then they may not have bothered to show up.
Of course, these are extreme examples of a general pattern. In the private sector, too, some positions have attracted salaries that are too high for a poor country.
However, the middle classes have in some cases developed strategies aimed at preventing the poor from gaining access to positions in some institutions.
At the beginning of the first term in office of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi one minister caused an uproar by saying that no son of a poor man could occupy a position in the institution he oversaw. The minister was forced to resign.
If you are a pessimist, you might say that the problem is not only that the minister could think in such terms, but that he also saw no problem in stating them.
If you are an optimist, you might share in the general uproar against him, including from many in the middle classes. Such “preventive strategies” against the empowerment of the poor have had the terrible result that it has become more and more difficult to climb the social ladder in Egypt.
The advocates of this “prevention” often argue that in senior positions in key institutions there are many opportunities for illegal gains and wrongdoing. If a man comes from a poor family, such people say, the temptation to take advantage of them will be all the bigger.
Another argument is that Egypt’s state-school system is a disaster. It does not transmit knowledge, and the only transmission of cultural capital comes through the family, and of course here the middle classes are at an advantage.
Moreover, when physical condition is an important variable, it is also true that the sons and daughters of middle-class families in poor countries like Egypt are in better physical shape.
However, the first of these arguments is clearly absurd. One might as well say that the sons of poorer families have fewer needs and are more easily content with average wages.
They have more to lose than the sons of “good families”. Moreover, it might be said, they are less “well-connected” and have fewer protections in cases of wrong-doing.
Yet, the evidence shows that individuals from wealthy families also behave in illegal ways. Social capital and networks are of course very strong assets of the middle classes, but this does not mean that the poor who do not have them should be disqualified.
The second argument looks less implausible. In a country where state schools are at best inefficient and that has few public libraries despite the government’s efforts, it could be argued that the role of family is much more important in education than it is elsewhere.
The question, then, is whether one can be certain than a poorer youngster has no way to acquire the necessary cultural tools? Can we also be certain than the sons of the middle classes receive a proper education?
Finally, can we be certain that the best individuals get the best jobs and succeed in the relevant admission procedures? These questions cannot be answered without serious study, but it seems plausible to answer no to all of them.
Of course, there are also counter-arguments. Not all the members of the middle classes aim to become civil servants or earn a living by parasitising off the state.
The middle classes are also powerful exporters of brains and talent, and thus they help the economy through remittances from abroad. Many individuals master many languages and have at least two cultures.
Many are familiar with the rest of the world. Many have served various regimes well, and they have been the drivers of Egypt’s modernisation.
One European diplomat told me ten years ago that he had served in Egypt for the first time during the second half of the 1970s.
Things looked hopeless then, he said. “If someone had told me that in 2009 Egypt would look like it does today, I would have considered him crazy,” he said.
The middle classes can be generous, but some will also tell you that it is easy to exploit the poor when it comes to business and then claim to be engaged in charitable activities. Even so, many members of the Egyptian middle classes do devote significant time and money to helping the poor.
*The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Egypt’s middle classes