The state, the street and the middle class III

Tewfick Aclimandos
Friday 9 Mar 2018

The middle classes have been crucial to the development of Egyptian society over recent decades, but they have been little studied and are often poorly understood

In almost all the countries I know of, the middle classes are a crucial actor, a central block of the society, and one that has been little studied. Academics seem to prefer to study the two extremes of the ruling class and the marginalised classes.

Opinion polls are often the only way to gain some insight into what is happening in the middle classes.

I do not know if we should explain this trend in terms of ideological bias, the difficulty of the subject and its complexity, or by the fact that the middle classes are often quiet.

In some Western states today, they are one of the main losers of the globalisation process.

Egypt’s middle classes were one of the main winners of the 1952 Revolution and one of the main losers — for now — of the economic reforms of 2016. Their purchasing power has been dropping, and many can no longer afford to pay for one of their favourite items, namely foreign education. Nevertheless, they remain a key player in society.

While the regime is frightened by a possible “revolution of the hungry”, it tends to forget that the middle classes launched the 25 January Revolution and in 2013 engineered the demise of former president Mohamed Morsi.

We should bear two important facts in mind: first, that the middle classes were weak before 1952 and that their rise has been the direct and indirect result of the policies of former presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak; and second, that since Sadat’s policies of economic openness, pursued and consolidated by Mubarak, more and more members of the middle classes have been less and less dependent on the state either for their income, their education, their knowledge or their ways of thinking.

My colleague the commentator Sherif Younis considers this growing independence of many segments of the middle classes to be one of the main factors explaining the 25 January Revolution.

He thinks that many of them were growing increasingly fed up with the authoritarian state, especially as it was increasingly unable to deliver anything meaningful.

In an article published in the daily Al-Ahram on 25 January this year, commentator Gamal Abdel-Gawwad wrote something similar, arguing that it was those who had had problems with the nationalist ideology promoted by the state who had launched the 25 January Revolution, naming the liberals, the leftists and the Islamists (mainly the Muslim Brothers), among them.

The nationalists had been weakened by many factors. Abdel-Gawwad does not dwell on them, but those that could be mentioned include the crisis of the state, perceptions of corruption, a lack of results, sharp divisions over privatisation, and the rise of former president Mubarak’s son Gamal Mubarak. He says that the nationalist forces then recovered and launched the 30 June Revolution removing Morsi in 2013.

It might be added that important segments of the liberals and the left realised at this time that the Muslim Brothers were planning to rule alone and were developing a very dangerous project in order to do so.

As a result, these segments forged an alliance with the nationalists.

The Muslim Brothers underestimated the strength of Egyptian nationalism and did not address concerns related to their foreign policy.

An increasing number of Egyptians realised that the two agendas, the nationalist and the Islamist, were divided by unbridgeable differences.

It is therefore tempting to construct an opposition between the middle classes that depend on the state and are nationalists and statists and those that depend on the private sector and adhere to a different credo. But things, of course, are more complicated.

First, we should draw a distinction between crucial state institutions and others that are less important. It is true that in the presidency, the army, the police, the justice system, the Irrigation Ministry and the media, statist nationalists make up the great majority.

However, in other state institutions, including the Foreign Ministry, things are more complicated.

Second, it is tempting to develop some hypotheses about those who were educated in what Egyptians call “foreign language schools”, which provide a curriculum that is much more Westernised than that in others.

You often hear observers, including some foreign scholars, saying that such people do not really know how things are done in Egypt as a result of their education, including how the state works.

All they know is that Egypt is not up to “normal”, read “Western”, standards.

There are arguments defending and attacking such sweeping judgements. What is clear is that key institutions in the state have complex relations with such people.

The crucial institutions need these people, especially those who have studied abroad, to lead the various ministries that handle the economy, finance, the public sector, foreign affairs, and so on.

The leaders of the key state institutions have complex relations with those who have studied abroad: either they despise them, especially if they say nasty things about the state’s modus operandi, or they are fond of them, especially if they are competent technocrats able to smooth relations with a potentially hostile West.

There is also another group that combines the two “mindsets”. It is possible to be the son of a provincial family, lead Friday prayers, and be an economic liberal devoted to privatisation and yet also know how the state works.

This is just an introduction. In a following article I intend to sum up what two leading Egyptian sociologists, Ahmed Moussa Badawi and Abdel-Baset Abdel-Moeti, have had to say about the Egyptian middle classes and how they have drawn distinctions between its different segments and understood their history.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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