Academics discuss whether poverty-stricken residents could rise up in the future with a revolution of their own. By Lamia Hassan
(Business Today Egypt, March 2011)
In the days that marked the birth of a revolution, Egyptians of all social classes could be seen standing side-by-side in Tahrir Square in unprecedented numbers to demand reform. Similar reports came from Alexandria and other governorates where protests took place.
But what drove these protesters to the streets, particularly those living under the poverty line? Were they there to lend their support for political reasons or were there other factors unique to these communities at play? Furthermore, what drove some to loot and break the law? Academics are analyzing these questions and more as they reflect on the revolution and the people driving change in Egypt.
At least 20% of the population are living below the poverty line, according to a government report released in January. For years the government has struggled to improve the quality of life for those below the poverty line and even those who live in pauperization (with an income of less than LE 205 per month), but the fact remains that the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow.
After January 28, reports flowed in from around Egypt that groups were taking advantage of the lack of police and looting. There were also reports of road blockages, vandalism and large numbers of people leaving slum areas. Some witnesses claim the looters were mostly thugs hired by the government to cause trouble, but others say poverty-stricken citizens were descending on vulnerable areas to make a quick buck.
Egyptian film director Khaled Youssef went on Al-Arabiya the night of January 28 saying people from the slums were looting banks, museums and several public buildings. Youssef called it the “revolution of hunger,” a topic he explored in two movies, Heena Maysara (When Things Get Better) and Dokkan Shehata (Shehata’s Shop).
Although Business Today could not substaniate his claims, the idea of hunger revolution, where poor people are the main drivers of a revolt to demand better lives, is not a new idea in Egypt.
“We always thought that the revolution would be sparked by people in the slum areas, but when we say ‘upper to middle class people started it,’ we thought that the hunger revolution that we always were warned of was not yet here,” says Madiha El Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
Academics say that although middle and upper-middle class Egyptians were the spark, once others saw the government start making concessions, they realized that they too could affect change and began joining the protests.
“The nature of the people in Tahrir changed as the protests continued. Even if it started with a higher class, toward the middle or the end of the revolution many people there were jobless, who thought instead of just sitting at home […] they could join the people in Tahrir and finally get a chance to open their mouths and express themselves,” says Amirah El-Haddad, an economics professor at Cairo University. “But this was only the case during the revolution.”
She says the lawless nature of the first few days of the revolution left an opening that many without means saw as a once-in-alifetime opportunity to profit.
“From the moment, it was announced that the police had disappeared from all the streets, it gave the initiative for many poor people who were suffering [at the hands of] the government and from poverty for a long time to seize this opportunity, and say in the absence of the police, ‘I can do whatever I want’ and ‘This is my chance to get away with anything,’” says El-Haddad. “There is no doubt that the revolution made poor people become much stronger.”
But the looting and rampaging didn’t end with Mubarak’s ousting. Empowered, people from poverty-stricken neighborhoods broke into one the Ahram City project’s gated-communities built by Orascom Developments on Al-Wahat Road near Sixth of October City. Their goal was simple: break into the compound and take the homes for themselves.
“All the different categories of people, the marginalized, those who graduated 10 years ago and still haven’t found a job and even those whose salaries are not enough to support their families, all found hope in this revolution and this was the way they rebelled,” says El-Haddad.
That being said, these cases hardly constitute a true hunger revolution. Nor have any of the problems the poor face been solved by deposing Mubarak, so could there be an uprising from this segment in the future?
According to Said Sadek, professor of sociology at AUC, things will have to get much worse before that happens. But this is a distinct possibility should the new government fail to come through with promises of greater freedoms for Egyptians.
“Until this moment, we still have reserves of food and raw materials to survive on, but if the government does not really respond quickly to people’s demands, we will start running out of our resources and in six months we will actually witness a hunger revolution that no one will be able to control,” says Sadek.
Professor El-Haddad says people are now divided into two camps: one that is willing to give the new government time to enforce new rules and policies and another that will settle for nothing less than immediate action.
Should these groups come to blows, Egypt’s political stability could be on the line, leaving the door open for chaos and the beginnings of a hunger revolution.
The only way to prevent this is for the government to make quick decisions that benefit Egyptians via expert advice from numerous sections of the population.
“Instead of slowing down the wheel of production, different groups should start thinking what they want to develop and what should be changed to make things better for everyone,” she says. “Another important question we have to ask now, generally in the coming period, is are we going to be a communist country and nationalize things […] or will we be a capitalist country?”
Four stages of denial
Sadek says that any revolution goes through four stages: The first is the revolution itself; the second is the counterrevolution; the third is the formation of a new political system and the fourth is the consolidation of the system. At the moment, Egypt is still in between the second and the third stage. Many are taking advantage of the instability by airing their grievances via strikes, particularly in the government.
After Mubarak stepped down, several governmental departments went on strike, demanding their own reforms. Media reports show there were 163 strikes comprised of various public and private-sector workers across the country after Mubarak stepped down.
Sadek said that if you observe the strikes that began after the fall of the regime, they were mainly instigated by workers and employees of the government’s various sectors.
“These employees always had economic and administrative grievances because of the regime, and even corruption complaints were never heard. Today the revolution […] gave them a chance to talk,” says Sadek. “Many of these employees were working under temporary contracts for years and no one ever responded to their requests to have fixed contracts, and they thought this is the time for it.”
He says that when people called for a revolution, they were demanding the downfall of the regime, but after the revolution they realized that although Mubarak is gone, much of his legacy remains.
“This is really provoking people, and now they should change the Cabinet and start purging people who were working under Mubarak to be able to calm people down,” he says.
Sadek says that if you really want change, you have to make a dramatic change within the Cabinet.
“We will remain in this civil disobedience until a major change happens from the government,” he adds.bt