Middle class prosperity needed

Mohamed Hussein Abul-Hassan , Sunday 19 Sep 2021

The size and ambitions of Egypt’s middle class should be fostered by the state as a necessary part of policies to achieve sustainable development

All societies witness disparities among their members regarding standards of living and social status. Many sociologists tend to divide them into three main categories, segments or classes: the high or wealthy, the low or poor, and the middle class in between.

Despite the economic significance of this societal structure and the difficulty of determining a decisive framework separating these classes, the middle class is also considered to be a class that historically has opened the windows of enlightenment, broken deadlocks, and opened up to the world.

This took place in modern Egypt at the hands of Muhammad Ali in the 19th century, who opened the door for this important transformation in our national history. Members of the middle class such as the scholars Rifaa Al-Tahtawi and Ali Mubarak among others were included in the student missions he sent to Europe.

Before the middle of the last century, the aristocracy constituted 0.5 per cent of Egypt’s population, while the middle class stood at around 20 per cent and was mostly concentrated in the cities where educational institutions were located. It was a class that was small in number but had been educated in the sciences and the arts.

At the same time, 80 per cent of Egyptians were the victims of ignorance, poverty and disease and were mostly living in the countryside.

The biggest transformation in the history of the middle class in Egypt occurred during the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, when free education, agricultural reform and government employment policies contributed to expanding the numbers of the middle class to the extent that it jumped to 45 per cent of the population, according to estimations made by Galal Amin in his books What happened to the Egyptians? and Towards a New Interpretation of the Economy and Societal Crises in Egypt.

Amin attributed this transformation not to a downward trend from the upper class but to an upward trend in plentiful numbers from the lower class. He also observed that since the 1970s and continuing through the rule of former presidents Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, the condition of the middle class had deteriorated. He mentioned the rise in unemployment and corruption, the declining value of wages and the widening gap between the classes.

Egyptian society is still undergoing economic, social and political transformations that are leaving their mark on its class structure. These transformations require preserving the middle-class components, providing conditions for strengthening it and opening horizons for upward mobility towards it and from it.

Due to its importance for consolidating the societal structure and its cohesion in the face of various challenges, any development model for Egypt should expand the base of the middle class and interact with its members’ aspirations in order to ensure success in moving to a higher level of sustainable development.

Middle-class prosperity is a fundamental component of development success. The developed countries do not implement policies that lead to the impoverishment of this class or to its shrinking, fragility or marginalisation. As for the developing countries, middle-class advance can be promoted by relying on two parallel mechanisms: reinforcing development based on human resources that are highly qualified, efficient and characterised by professional merit and receiving good salaries, and preparing favourable conditions for attaining such objectives through policies that will qualify people through education, culture and economic and political development.

It is not easy to define the middle class, but in developing countries the World Bank defines its members as people earning between $2 and $13 a day. While members of the middle class are main beneficiaries of public policies in education, healthcare and housing, they are also a main source of tax revenues. When countries implement austerity policies in these fields, members of the middle class suffer from negative repercussions on basic services, especially in education and healthcare. Hence, financial policies, and particularly direct and indirect taxes and subsidies, play a pivotal role in weakening or strengthening social justice and narrowing the gap in income distribution among classes.

It is necessary to consolidate the middle-class ability to be resilient, protecting it from social retreats, advancing efforts towards poverty eradication, supporting marginalised groups and realising the economic empowerment of women along with developing infrastructure, improving the investment climate, and improving the quality of services. Egypt’s Decent Life Initiative, which aims to do many of these things, is a step in the right direction, but it must be accompanied by a long-awaited industrial and agricultural renaissance that will expand horizons and open half-shut windows politically, socially and culturally.

The fruits of these policies will fall on all social classes without exception, especially the middle class, which is a strong lever for political stability. This is because the expansion of the middle class is an indicator of stronger social cohesion and less disparity, and it is the driving force behind social, cultural and technological dynamics and a pointer to economic growth and prosperity.

The advance of the middle class is thus not an option but an objective, and it is strategically necessary for society’s safety and well-being.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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