Egypt's 'noble poor' denied their role in the revolution
Lina El-Wardani, , Tuesday 21 Jun 2011
Egypt's revolution demanded social justice, and the popularity of a recent blog post highlighting the injustices endured by the poor before and since 25 January shows little has changed

Activist Mohammed Abul Gheit’s blog shot up in popularity with his post The Poor First, You Bastardsfor highlighting the poor’s role in the revolution. For the first time readers saw martyr’s photos and stories (20) from the lower classes, ranging in age from 16 to 35.

Importantly, the article pushes the boundaries of Egypt’s classicism by posing the question: Why is the poor's role in the revolution ignored?

"Why don't we see those people's photos? Is it because they are poor and vulgar? Because their clothes are cheap? Why are the only popular photos of martyrs from middle- and upper-middle classes?" wonders Abul Gheit in his blog that has seen 10,000 likes on Facebook and 6,000 comments.

Indeed, the poor's role is ignored by most politicians, intellectuals and researchers, and somehow, Egypt’s Revolution was classified as a middle-class revolution.

In fact, all classes were seen in Tahrir Square. During the height of the revolt, from 25 - 28 January and mostly from Cairo's poorest districts: Imbaba, Boulak and Attaba, including the fights with police in the alleys that exhausted the police and played a major role in the success of the revolution. A case in point: on the pivotal date for the revolution, 28 January, the police attacked protesters and citizens the whole day and then disappeared. While the middle- and upper-classes took the beating, tear gas bombs and bullets peacefully, the lower classes fought back and defeated the police.

Activist Amr Ezzat, however, resists Abul Gheit’s minimisation of the middle-class’ role in the revolution: "The middle class was the brain and initiative of revolution, also I hate the word poor, you distance yourself from them and the concept returns us to charity rather than rights, I like the political terms of labourers, farmers, people who have rights, and this brings us to necessary political argument not social charity," added Ezzat.

Abul Gheit's blog post narrates tens of stories of how the residents of poor and disadvantaged areas were the ones who really fought back using stones, makeshift weapons, such as knives and sticks, Molotov cocktails and often with their bare hands.

Treatment by the judicial system

To add insult to injury, many believe that the trials of officers accused of killing civilians at the site of protests are at turtle speed. Last Monday the Alexandria Criminal Court adjourned - again - the case of six high-ranking officers charged with the murder and attempted murder of peaceful protesters to 17 October. The courtroom broke out into chaos. Today the officers were released on account of their occupation.

The families were outraged by what they called the “unjustified” postponement of the trial. The lawyers of the policemen reportedly raised fingers at the families, countering that their sons are "not martyrs: they are losers who happened to be near the police station," according to Al Badeel news website.

The lawyers aren’t the only ones judging Egypt’s poorer citizens. It’s a striking pattern to see the poorer citizens arrested by Egypt’s ruling military under the pretence that they are “thugs” and receive worse treatment than those who are obviously middle- or upper-class, including less protection from lawyers and more abuses occur against them because they won’t receive as much media limelight.

What’s important?

So why is the poor's role in the revolution brushed aside so? According to Ayman Al-Sayyad, analyst and editor in chief of Weghat Nazar, this goes way back to the 70s, forty years before the 25 January Revolution, when Egyptian values changed and it no longer mattered how educated or respectful people are, but rather how much they have.Those who attend public schools and universities are not treated the same as those who attend private ones."Your value lies in what you are wearing, etc.As the hierarchy of society changed; its criteria changed. I believe that the poor are the main fuel of the revolution. The people who have nothing to lose are the noblemen behind the revolution," concluded Al- Sayyad.

Abul Gheit and Al-Sayyad are on the same wavelength in this respect. Abul Gheit linked a video of the police station in Sayeda Zeinab (a poor district in central Cairo) as it was being burnt down. In the video a middle-class young man warns a poor man: “Careful; they are shooting live bullets,” to which the young, poor man replies "It doesn't matter any longer whether I live or die."

The analysis Abul Gheit gives for this exchange is "He [the poor man] didn't tell him, ‘I'd die for Egypt,’ or ‘I am a martyr of Islam:' his simple answer means his life as a poor and humiliated person is not better than dying. No one could imagine that the politicians would later say that if we don't establish the constitution first that we would be betraying the martyrs’ blood, and that group [that is pushing for] the elections first would counter: we know the martyrs better than you do and we have sacrificed more than you."

The whole argument of whether to establish the constitution first versus hold the elections first doesn't mean much to 40 per cent of Egyptians under the poverty line, unless this directly affects their living conditions. They believe that this is all media talk and no one really cares about them.

The result is that the poor are now blaming the revolution and revolutionaries for exacerbating their poverty post-revolution, explains Abul Gheit.

Amr Ezzat believes this argument is demeaning to the poor and politics at the same time: “I don't agree with the blog's main argument because it is against politics, while the most important thing the revolution did is politicise Egyptians.”

Since the revolution food prices have almost doubled. Unemployment for young people hovers around 30 per cent. Many of those who have jobs are under-employed and earn very little.

In a recent survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) 41 per cent of the youth in Egypt confirmed that the events post-revolution make them want to migrate.

The survey reveals that the first weeks of the revolution didn't seem to influence Egyptians’ decision to migrate. However, the decline in economic activity afterwards and the loss of jobs and incomes acted as a primary push factor for youth who reported intentions to migrate.

When asked what their top five most important issues are, they ranked jobs and employment as a primary issue; then corruption; security; constitutional reform and at the bottom of their list was education and the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Is it just a matter of a minimum wage?

The poor might also interpret the government’s answer to the recent minimum wage demands as biased against them. The government recently decided to raise the minimum wage to LE 700 (just over $100/month), promising to raise it to LE 1200 ($200) within five years. But why should the poor have to wait five more years after over thirty years of being marginalised and impoverished?

Senior employment expert, Dorothea Schmidt, with the International Labour Organization (ILO) is sceptical of this scheme. She argues that the government’s plans to implement a minimum wage in Egypt will have minimal impact on improving the poverty situation.

In fact, many economists caveat that a minimum wage without a maximum wage and a rearranging of salaries structure has little significance.

“The LE700 that the government wants to set as a minimum wage in both the public and the private sectors shouldn’t involve that much debate," said Schmidt to Ahram Online earlier this month, adding thatlarge companies wouldn't be harmed by this step, as it implicates only a small increase in production costs.

Schmidt believes that informal workers are ignored by the new policies, as they do not tackle the wage conditions of those employed in the informal sector, a group with the lowest average wage rates in the country.

Statistics suggest that over 35 per cent of Egypt's labour is working in vulnerable jobs, lacking social insurance, health insurance, unionisation, etc. Informal employment in the private sector includes up to 75 per cent of total labourers.

Also, the law that criminalised strikes and protests passed only a month after the revolution ousted the president seems particularly biased against the poor and those who have long been suffering poor working conditions and salaries.

The financial budget announced by Financial Minister Samir Radwan earlier in June forecasts an expenditure of LE514.5 billion ($86.6 billion), with revenue increasing to LE350.3 billion from 285.8, according to a cabinet statement.

However, when comparing the increase in the vital section, such as education and health, the increase is less than 10 per cent from last year, which is much less than the revolutionaries hoped for. The same applies for the tax increase from 20 per cent to 25 per cent on those whose annual income exceeds LE10 milllion, accordingto many analysts, is much less than expected if you want to bridge the wide gap between the rich and the poor.

If this is the stance of the government, how about the politicians and intellectuals? They are mostly pre occupied with the issue of constitution first or elections first.

Many believe that the current government is biased against the poor and afraid of the businessmen.

Between being ignored and the decline in economy, which has left the poor even poorer, they seem to be simmering resentment against the revolution and the middle-class.

"The elite are separated from the street; they are centred in conference rooms, on TV channels; they only discuss what they want and not what the revolution wants. That's why we find two political figures with the same ideas forming two parties instead of one, because they both want to be stars" accuses Al-Sayyad, adding that “’s a fake elite that, sadly, sabotages the revolution. This is common in history: the noble poor create the revolution and the politicians inhale its benefits," adds Al- Sayyad.

Abul Gheit ends his post by quoting Erdogan in the 90s in an Islamic organisations conference that his plan is to solve the sewage problem. He didn't say he would implement the sharia (Islamic law) and that's how he became prime minister: because he focused on daily problems of the Turks, but here in Egypt, we don't have an Erdogan. We only have boring and old politicians indulging in their meaningless discussions of secular or Islamic, constitution first or elections first, and to those he says "The poor first."