Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 August 2007
Issue No. 856
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Time to reminisce

Where, wonders Samir Sobhi, is the Egyptian middle class?

Click to view caption
Caricatures of the past by Sarokhan Rakha and Gamal Kamal, depicting the middle and upper middle classes' style of life, which has changed over the decades

Rural and urban alike, the middle class has consistently supplied this country with the elite necessary for maintaining a legitimate polity. It spawned generations of intellectuals, poets, writers and artists, and in the mid-1950s, when the government provided better opportunities for education and housing, the idea was to propel the lower classes into the ranks of the middle class. Sadly, the resulting stratification was far from predictable. With economic reform introduced at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank, it was consumerism that took over, not the notion of an elite capable of carrying the country forward. Luxury imports became the order of the day -- you need only inspect the cars on the streets to realise this -- and production was relegated to the background.

The development of the contemporary middle class did not begin until the 1919 Revolution when Dunlop Pasha, British consultant to the Education Ministry, sought to produce a class of government employees. (At the time the British had control of everything in the country, from the army to the palace and indeed to government policy). The first Egyptian university turned out educated, appropriately Westernised graduates, notably in the fields of law, education and science: a feat. But it had been Khedive Said, in the 19th century, who gave Abdel-Rahman Rushdi a print press to produce the official magazine Al-Waqaei Al-Misriya (Egyptian Chronicles); with the advent of his successor, Khedive Ismail -- creator of the Western-style city centre and promoter of the upwardly mobile -- the downtown area bubbled with media activity, witnessing the emergence and development of major publications like Rose El-Youssef, Al-Ahram and Akher Saa (many others, like Al-Balagh and Al-Muqattam, have since perished). The language these publications adopted -- later to be used by the entire middle class throughout the Arab world -- was both fast-paced and modern, and incorporated such essential foreign words as "radio", "telephone" and "automobile". The middle class became adept at using the latest technologies, setting up print houses, film studios and record companies. It was the beginning of a true, if abortive, renaissance.

Where, today, is the Egyptian middle class? These days, what exactly are our businessmen, farmers and merchants doing? Some middle-class types -- cotton farmers who annually visited the capital to sell their crop, for example -- have altogether disappeared, while blue collars turn into white collars by the day, though the latter can now be divided into several classes of sophistication. Look at what people read -- international publications, glossy magazines, general-interest and specialised periodicals, reading matter for every taste -- and you might have some idea of the variety and complexity of the situation. As education spread, the very meaning of illiteracy has changed. Now we have unemployment among the educated. Have we educated too many people, or just educated them in the wrong skills? This is a question for the specialists to answer. What is obvious, however, is that we have a shortage of skilled labour. The shortage developed over the past few decades, when manual workers started seeking better fortunes in Libya and the Gulf. This altered Cairo's urban scene. Wholesale vegetable markets were pushed into the outskirts. Even artisans were confined to their own "city" within the capital. No longer does anyone glamourise the working class, singing its praises as the great vernacular poet Bayram El-Tunsi once did, or writing stage operettas populated by it, as the great musician Sayed Darwish did.

Even cartoonists have given up on the middle class as a source of entertainment. Once, the likes of the character Masri Effendi (Egyptian Effendi) -- the civil servant who used to walk around in a fez, often carrying a watermelon, commenting on the ironies of his time -- made up their principal target. He is gone now. Masters like Sarukhan, Adel Sami or Rakha are no longer concerned with Masri Effendi. Even Ahmed Ragab, creator of the quirky Qassim El-Simmawi, has moved onto other things by now. Egyptian demonstrators used to poke fun at the government. Humourous magazines, such as Al-Baakuka of many decades ago, were hilarious. Now the humour is gone. And the middle class seems to be too busy working on tans at the North Coast.

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