Why are Egyptians sad?

Sarah El-Rashidi, Friday 18 Oct 2013

Egypt ranks 130th out of 156 countries in a recent UN report on happiness; experts suggest that political and economic instability, compounded by demographic congestion, are key causes of Egyptians' general discontentment

Egyptian man
A man offers money to buy bread at a bakery in Cairo 17 March 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Today, even Egyptian national holidays, like the recent 40th anniversary of the 6 October War victory against Israel, are marred with blood and sadness. Last week, 57 people were killed in clashes between security forces and protesters supporting ousted president Mohamed Morsi across Egypt. Such calamities have become commonplace in recent years, which perhaps accounts for the evident discontent plaguing Egyptians. 

The World Happiness Report published in September by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network listed Egypt as the 130th happiest nation out of 156 surveyed. According to the report, Egypt’s "happiness rate" dropped by 21.2 percent from its ratings in 2005 and 2007.

“I feel so unhappy that I cannot provide for my six children; I pray that I was dead,” sighed Sayed Kamal from the impoverished island of Gezirit Al-Waraq in central Cairo, whose aging appearance — despite being only middle-aged — has clearly been one consequence of his discontent.

“Economic and political instability leading to psychological ambiguity,” explains Dr. Nabil El-Kot, a psychiatrist and practicing psychotherapist, were among the leading causes behind the discontent many Egyptians face. Political sociologist Dr. Said Sadek agrees that economic and political stability are key factors in a population's happiness. This, he says, is why affluent countries like Denmark have higher levels of happiness.

Experts insist, however, that the definition of happiness is subjective and may vary from culture to culture.

The philosophy of happiness

As identified by Stanford’s Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, there are two popular philosophical definitions of happiness. One defines happiness as a value corresponding to well-being or flourishing. The other categorises the word as a purely descriptive psychological term, comparable to sadness or joy. Positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness in her book, The How of Happiness, as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

Plato argued that the human soul consists of three parts -- reason, will and desire -- and that happiness is achieved when the three are in balance. Other philosophers, like Schopenhauer, saw happiness as an illusion given the inevitability of pain and boredom. Dr. Omar Nafei, an Egyptian psychotherapist, adopts a similar interpretation, criticising the notion of happiness as "overrated."

“The state of unhappiness Egyptians are experiencing today is normal and expected. Happiness is only a temporary emotion,” said Nafei.

The World Happiness Report evaluates a population's happiness based on a numerous factors, including life expectancy, GDP per capita, corruption levels, citizens’ perceived freedom, and "social support." However, as Dr. El-Kot notes, this understanding of happiness is relative, and its meaning differs depending on which factors are highlighted.

“Happiness is subjective and individual; each person has a different perception of happiness,” affirms Evelyn Scerbo, a homeopathy practitioner and volunteer at an NGO for victims of domestic violence.

Dr. Hani Henry, professor of psychology at the American University in Cairo, adds that happiness in individualistic societies is different from more collective societies such as Egypt. According to Henry, in individualistic societies happiness is self-determined, whereas in collective societies the well-being of the group is more important than personal happiness. “In Egypt and other collective societies, happiness depends on the group. Thus, when the community is sad the general climate is one of sadness, which is contagious,” Henry explains.

Politico-economic factors

The 25 January Revolution, which led to the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, followed by the 30 June 2013 mass demonstrations against Islamist president Mohamed Morsi both reflected and contributed to the current state of unhappiness among Egyptians. The uncertainty of the future -- in the coming months, Egyptians will see the drafting of a new constitution, as well as new parliamentary and presidential elections -- also adds to anxieties and limits contentment in the present.

“Neurotransmitters’ in people’s brains, that communicate information between the brain and the body, have been exhausted by events,” explained El-Kot, refering to the ongoing violence and turbulence to which Egyptians have now become accustomed. El-Kot believes that in many cases these negative chemical messages within the body will lead to depression.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s waning economy — a key source of discontent — continues to suffer from political instability and violence. The World Bank's latest report on Egypt indicated that real GDP growth slowed to just 2.2 percent between 2012 and 2013 and investment declined to 13 percent of GDP in the second half of 2012.

“We are barely surviving — how can we be happy? While I work, my two elder sons, both graduates, are at home unemployed,” lamented Afaf Abdel Messieh, a fatigued Egyptian widow.

The failure of the state to address economic woes, which instigated the revolution for many, has lead to disappointment and hopelessness.

“Many Egyptians feel depressed because we have not achieved the goals of the revolution: social justice, equal access, better education and healthcare,” Henry explains.

Essential staples of basic survival, such as food and clean water, have been increasingly affected by the economic downturn since 2009. As a recent World Food Programme report reveals, approximately 13.7 million — 17 percent — of Egyptians suffered food insecurity in 2011, a three per cent rise from 2009. This has led to increased malnutrition and higher rates of anaemia among children.

Poverty and political insecurity have consequently had a grave impact on citizens’ perceived "freedom to make life choices," a key component of the UN World Happiness Report's scoring criteria.

Demography, violence and melancholy

A lack of personal space, high population density and sense of suffocation in Egypt’s major cities are also significant sources of Egyptians' widespread discontentment. Egypt’s population now boasts 85 million people, with an increase of one million every six months, according to CAPMAS.

Cairo, the capital city, is one of the densest cities in the world, with an average of 47,097 people per square kilometre.

Unwanted social contact has been associated with an increase in stress and aggression. According to Nafei, population growth, environmental degradation, and urban violence can all be attributed high population density, which has resulted in lower standards of living for many Egyptians.

Poor education services, high rates of illiteracy, and deficient health services also contribute to Egyptians' lack of contentment, particularly since informal social support networks have deteriorated amidst economic and security concerns. “Egyptians have been forced to change their social lives. They do not meet family and friends often like they used to,” explains El-Kot. These changes in social patterns are a result not only of economic constraints, but also the national curfew that has been in effect since 14 August, preventing Egyptians from socialising at night. El-Kot also claims that the psychological trauma of the last three years has caused many of his patients to withdraw from relationships and social activity and exhibit disinterest in life. He asserts that such discontent in personal relationships is reflected in increased divorce rates.

Egypt’s future happiness

When forecasting the future of Egyptians' happiness, many believe that it will increase once political and economic stability are restored. The recent emergence of General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the head of the Armed Forces who supported the mass uprising against former president Morsi, has spurred new hope for many.

“El-Sisi has renewed hope; he is more popular than King Farouk, Mohamed Ali, Nasser or Sadat. Contentment requires stability and a strong state, not democracy,” exclaims Henry, refering to the inherently patriarchal nature of Egyptian society, while conceding that his standpoint may be perceived as controversial to some.

Provided the political roadmap of the interim government procedes, Nafei, among others, shares Henry's positive projections for Egyptians' future happiness.

“Even amongst the extremely poor, happiness did exist, and I think it will exist again,” he stated optimistically.

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