|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
18 - 24 January 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (373)
A series of articles published in Al-Ahram in 1925-1926 attempted to explain why the majority of Egyptians were poor. The paper, after constant comparisons with Britain, concluded that the usual economic woes attributed to Third World countries were the primary cause but a few problems particular to Egyptian society were added: Egyptians' love for civil service jobs, their extravagance at weddings and funerals, the educational system, nepotism and the lack of job opportunities for women. The newspaper saw all these as reasons why the well-to-do in Egypt were a minority. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* chronicles the country's distinct absence of cash.
Why we are poor
It was not unusual for articles sent in by Al-Ahram readers to so spark the interest of other readers that the newspaper encouraged the authors to serialise. Such was the case with "Why Are We Poor?" the title of more than 20 instalments that ran from August 1925 well into the following year, comprising a unique and lucid treatment of a pertinent question to Egyptian society.
The author, Mahmoud Ismail, fellow of a commercial sciences institute in Britain, hoped to present as comprehensive an explanation as possible of poverty in Egypt and therefore went beyond its economic manifestations to probe its social and moral aspects. The author was admittedly harsh in his judgment of Egyptian society. He felt that there were several pernicious ills that did not exist in British society where he received his training. But then, Ismail was not alone in this admiration for British society, which was evident in Hafez Afifi's book The English in Their Country.
"Egyptians' love for government posts" was the first flaw Ismail observed in Egyptian society. He writes, "The vast majority of the educated elite in our country is infatuated with government positions and compete passionately to secure one. As a consequence we have donned the coarse robe of poverty, drunk the bitter brew of hardship and squandered the fortunes of our country. Now when men die, they leave neither money nor legacy apart from hordes of starving, destitute, orphaned children." To illustrate he observes that the mid-level government functionary earns an average salary of LE15, while "the lemonade vendors on the main streets" earned two and a half times that much. To Ismail the veneration of positions in the civil service was indicative of the decline among Orientals of the value of entrepreneurship, which, he held, was deeply ingrained among Westerners. Indeed, "the gap between the two is vast, for they are more knowledgeable than we are on money and more aware of the requirements of development and civilisation."
Egyptians were also given to extravagance, Ismail asserted, observing that in this respect there was no difference between an Egyptian wedding and an Egyptian funeral. The poor even more than the rich lavished untold sums on wedding ceremonies for their sons and daughters. Similarly, "We are extravagant in times of misfortune. Funeral and memorial services must be commensurate with the station the deceased had in life. Therefore, we spend all the money he had put aside for his children in the course of a few nights. I cannot comprehend the need for all this ostentation on occasions of sorrow and distress." In this context, the author tells us that he had read of a society in the US that undertakes interment of the dead "at costs that neither weigh on the purse nor impoverish orphans."
Could it be that the author of "Why Are We Poor?" had his wife in mind when he criticised another source of extravagance, fashion? Perhaps, indeed, we detect a note of bitterness when he writes that married men are more acutely aware than others of the financial burdens it takes to sustain their wives' and children's love of appearances. "Our pocket is drained by clothes, penalised by hues and shades. With our own hands we've fashioned a new form of waste. I would wager that on the whole earth Egyptians have no equal in their infatuation with everything new, or in the speed with which they change their taste."
Egyptians, even the poor, were also wasteful in the money they would lavish on entertaining guests to create the impression that they are well-to-do. It would benefit the economy greatly were Egyptians to emulate the British in this respect, for "when one sits at a dining table in England one realises immediately that food is to sustain and revitalise the body, that the smaller the quantities the more wholesome it is and that excess brings only obesity and dyspepsia."
In a subsequent article, Ismail criticises child-rearing in Egypt, which, he feels, fails to equip people for life. Unlike the liberal education given to children in Britain, in Egypt "upbringing is captivity, adulthood is captivity and marriage is captivity." As a result, Egyptians become "their own worst enemy and work towards their own demise."
Perhaps one of the most detrimental byproducts of this poor upbringing is the prevalent lack of a spirit of cooperation. Even within a single family, he observes, "a father may favour one son for his ability to bring rank and honour to the family, inciting the jealousy of his less talented brothers. It is thus that envy takes root in the hearts of peers and colleagues, causing their interests to conflict and their happiness to disintegrate."
Perhaps the worst flaw in the system of child-rearing in Egypt was the suppression of the critical senses and the encouragement of blind acceptance of commonly held ideas and opinions. This leads to "an insensitivity to the changes taking place around us, to which others are acute, and, consequently, an inability to discern the opportunities that present themselves at every moment."
Ismail attributes the failures in upbringing primarily to the educational system that prevailed in Egyptian schools and institutes at the time. To illustrate, he opens his fourth article with an account of a foreign teacher in a government school who was dumfounded by the answer one of his students gave to a question on the benefits of studying ancient history: "We study this subject to learn that the world is the ephemeral, not eternal, and that all creatures upon it are mortal, that it is barren and doomed."
The major blame for this state of affairs lay with the little value that was accorded primary education. Primary schools in Egypt are staffed with the least experienced and least qualified teachers, "whereas children in their first phases of education demand the brightest and most skilled teachers possible," Ismail exhorts, again pointing to the West where primary education is considered "the cornerstone of the edifice of individual and collective happiness. For this reason they have trained the most perspicacious minds which have developed new and original means of instruction for that educational level." Thus, in British classrooms lessons become a delightful form of entertainment that engages the students, whereas in Egypt the emphasis is on the cane and the switch and ever more innovative forms of threats and punishment. In sum, he concludes, "If the educational system is not conducive to the happiness of the people then it must be flawed somewhere."
Through brief narratives, the author of "Why Are We Poor?" paints a gloomy picture of what he perceived to be the state of Egyptian mores and customs at the time:
"Yesterday, I went to offer my condolences to a friend and found sitting in front of me a young man, his legs crossed, blowing clouds of smoke in my direction and relating in a loud voice jokes and other such drivel to the person sitting next to him."
In the theatre one evening, he was shocked to find that "the audience applauded at times that called for silence and remained mute when they should have applauded."
At a luncheon, such was the pushing and shoving and the din that the guests may well have been beasts scrambling to get at their prey, with "the more gluttonous conniving to devour more and cut off access to the weak." One suspects that Ismail was one of the latter in that luncheon.
But these depictions of Egyptian society, which appeared under "Why Are We Poor?" in Al-Ahram of 11 November 1925, were only the appetiser presaging much more to come on the customs and attitudes that Ismail believed were at the root of poverty.
Among the most pernicious economic banes, he believed, was the widespread network of patronage and nepotism. Even at the highest echelons of the civil service, "every post is available for the relatives and the relatives of the relatives of the most senior functionary, regardless of whether the candidates have the skills to perform the jobs or the qualifications commensurate with the salary they will receive. For these officials government service has become their personal estate."
Again, in Britain the situation could not be more different. To illustrate, Ismail relates a story he had read in the British press on a shoe manufacturer who fired his son and forbade him to trade under his name. The son filed suit with the justice of the peace, arguing that the only complaint his father had was his failure to turn up for work on time in the mornings. The judge ruled in favour of the father, condemning negligence, which should never be indulged even for one's closest relatives.
The system of patronage and nepotism, Ismail concludes, was one of the foremost causes of poverty because "it deprives the nation of the benefit it should derive from individuals who are productive, not those who perform no work or no worthwhile work. These individuals fill the ranks of the government bureaucracy as well as every field of public and private enterprise. One can consider it a form of fraud and deceit because it denies employment to those truly qualified for those places that have been occupied."
One of the episodes of "Why Are We Poor?" was devoted to the status of women in Egypt, which he posited as another fundamental cause of the nation's economic plight. Can any civilised man take countenance in the marital disputes we see before our very eyes and that make their way to our religious courts, he asks. "In most of these cases the common thread between them is man's tyranny over woman through his absolute right to divorce and the privilege of taking more than one wife." Further on marital disputes he remarks, "Frequently we come across bitter domestic quarrels where the husband claims to know everything and holds that his wife knows nothing, whereas in fact they both are entirely ignorant!"
Men were also guilty of the belief that women were created solely for their sexual gratification, "which is why we make our wives and daughters wear veils and prevent them from appearing in public without a formidable guardian." In Europe, he relates, one does not find such condescension towards women. "In the mornings and evenings a foreign woman can be seen, beauty unconcealed in public places, seated next to her husband or father who will readily present her to his friends because he is aware of the moral virtues of his milieu and also knows that his wife or daughter has a sense of honour that she is the first to defend and over which she needs no guardian."
As long as Egyptian attitudes toward women remain unchanged they will continue to constitute one of the main fonts for the perpetuation of poverty. Already, he observes, many of the most high-minded Egyptians object to the continued seclusion of women from the world, which is why many decided to marry foreign women. The solution to the conundrum, he urged, was to adopt a new creed of reform, "however loathsome that may be to the reactionaries and religious extremists." The essential ingredient of this reform is "to universalise education, rendering compulsory in its elementary stages and expanding the scope for women in the intermediate and higher levels, thereby making it increasingly possible for men and women to deliberate together over such topics as the benefits that photography and drama can bring to education, the shortcomings in legislation, affairs of national history, or any other topic of concern." Women, in turn, must prepare themselves to rise to the challenge that awaits them, so that "to the objection that her freedom will jeopardise public morals her superior virtues will safeguard these morals; to the claim that a woman is ignorant she will show her ability to triumph over men in all fields of knowledge; to the assertion that she knows nothing of child-rearing she will raise the fittest young bodies and soundest young minds; and to the belief that she has no opinions to contribute on social affairs she will produce volumes of written works and address us from the podium, where she will be certain to find legislators and an admiring public ready to heed her call."
In his final article on the norms and customs that generate poverty, Ismail compared household management in European and Egyptian societies. There, one finds cleanliness, order and economy; here lack of sanitation, chaos and waste. In France, he observes, a family of average means can live comfortably on 300 francs a month and the average British family can live similarly in London on £15 a month. "In Cairo, however, anyone with that income could never dream of obtaining half of what the French or British family can afford." The secret behind this disparity was not differences in costs of living but the Egyptian inattentiveness to domestic economies and a well-regulated lifestyle. To drive the point home, we are presented with a rosy picture of a day in the life of the average European child, waking up to maternal affection in the morning, off to school to join his colleagues in singing the national anthem, engaging with his peers after classes in organised recreational activities, "which are highly revered over there." Ismail may well have gone overboard in his veneration for the regimented European lifestyle, the absence of which in Egypt he felt lay at the heart of the perpetuation of poverty.
In his last episodes, Ismail devoted himself to the formal aspects of the economy and what he held to be the three keys to economic development: industry, the promotion of trade and the spread of cooperative institutions. He took exception to the commonly held notion that Egypt was an agrarian nation which led to rigidity in the economy and in government, arguing that industry had always had a solid foothold in Egypt, from ancient times until the present. Had this not been the case, Egypt would not have been able to achieve such a rapid boom in the textile industry in the early 19th century, as well as in the forging and tanning industries. And now, he said, there were many opportunities for industrial expansion. Immediate attention should be given to the spinning and weaving industries "in order to become self-sufficient in fabrics, thread and cotton garments."
The sugar industry was also a prime area for expansion and Ismail exhorted entrepreneurs engaged in this field to intensify their experiments with sugar beet cultivation and deriving sugar from other non-traditional sources such as corn stalks and dates. He also pleads, "It would be most appropriate if the government were to assist the sugar company in obtaining sufficient quantities of cane and if the Ministry of Agriculture was to contemplate exploring technical means for augmenting cane production without increasing the land area under sugarcane cultivation."
A third area that he recommends for attention is the paper industry, due to the low production costs involved and high profit margins. Not only can paper be fabricated from a variety of different plants, but it had a variety of different uses that extended beyond the needs for writing, publication and wrapping.
The tanning industry, too, should be promoted, he urged, on the grounds that it fed a number of other industries, notably shoes, luggage and leather accessory manufactures. "Obtaining the necessary materials is easy, tanneries exist aplenty and the progress this industry has made in Alexandria is proof of the benefits of encouraging it."
As Egyptians acquired international repute for their furniture manufactures, Ismail invited his readers to visit some of the famous furniture retail outlets, "which display the creations of Egyptian skill and ingenuity, for when one visits the exhibits of these stores located on Cairo's famous downtown streets, one is inevitably awed by the precision of the workmanship and the elegance of the design."
If the prospects for industrial expansion were excellent, the author of "Why Are We Poor?" feared that Egyptians were still sorely deficient in the modern means for promoting their products. Once more, comparing the situations in Europe and Egypt, he writes, "When one enters even the smallest store in Europe, one is so amazed by the variety and the various forms of enticement that one is certain not to leave without having made a purchase or determined to make one. To go into a store in Egypt, on the other hand, is to see the tumult of give-and-take, of oaths and protestations, and modes of bargaining that sometimes transgress the bounds of good taste and etiquette, until the customer storms out cursing its owner and his wares."
Ismail further bemoaned the failure of the various attempts to reform commercial education in Egypt. "These schools of trade the government established recently only benefit the handful of students who are able to attend classes in the evening and then practise what they have learnt the following day. The majority of the students are those who attend the daytime courses, and this merely in order to obtain a certificate so that they can rush off to compete with the hordes vying for civil service jobs."
The final two articles of "Why Are We Poor?" are devoted to the need to promote cooperation. It is regrettable, he writes, that the spirit of cooperation among Egyptians has so weakened as to exist effectively only among bad people, the corruptive effects of which can only be countered if youth, workers and the well-to-do dedicate themselves to the performance of good deeds, the spread of knowledge and the promotion of skills and talents. In this regard, he urges Egyptians to emulate the British model, where the cooperative movement thrives so much as to enable individuals of modest means to get together to form commercial or agricultural companies, as well as consumer cooperatives that construct large warehouses and sell their stores to shareholders and the public at very reasonable prices. For once, at least, Mahmoud Ismail acknowledged some positive efforts that had been made in this direction in Egypt and praised, if only in passing, the efforts of Omar Lutfi, the pioneer of the cooperative movement in Egypt.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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