What happened to Nasser's middle class?
The government raced to contain the shortages in the supply of diesel fuel this week, reports Nesma Nowar
Yesterday, 28 September, was the 41st anniversary of the death of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt's president from 1954 to 1970. Since his death, Nasser has been metaphorically present in every national event. People may like or dislike him, but he remains a towering figure in our history, some say politically "immortal". Often, you meet people dreaming of another Nasser, but one who's more democratically inclined.
Nasser's greatest merit, some would say, was his utter dedication to the middle class. This is because social justice is pointless unless you have the middle class to safeguard it. The middle class is the mainstay of society. In fact, one can claim that there is a correlation between progress and the size of the middle class. The greater the latter, the more grounded society is in matters of ethics and public morality.
Hosni Mubarak's worse mistake was to ignore the middle class and focus instead on helping the rich. In the past 30 years, the middle class dwindled to the point of near extinction.
Nasser was a member of the middle class. His father was a post office employee, a humble job but enough to qualify for middle class status. Before the 1952 Revolution, a government job was a sure way of attaining upward mobility.
Nasser's bias to the middle class inspired many of his decisions, as in the case of agrarian reform, which turned many landless peasants into proprietors. By elevating peasants above the poverty line, Nasser gave them the opportunity to educate their children. The latter, in turn, became doctors and engineers, teachers and judges -- scions of a new middle class. Government jobs were offered to those with the right qualifications, not those with the right connections.
Free education was another pillar of Nasser's policies. Poor families suddenly could send their children to college, thus claiming their stake in the Egyptian dream. Due to Nasser's policies of free education and full employment, the middle class grew steadily, and became the defender of the country's moral compass.
In the 1950s and 1960s, even midway into the 1970s, the country's sense of morality was well grounded. Fanaticism and religious extremism were rare. Girls walked around in short skirts and no one bothered them. Miniskirts were in fashion, and no one made a big deal about it, nor did we see a rise in sexual harassment. Our neighbourhoods were neighbourly and our streets were safe. Corruption was under control, and those who accepted bribes lived in fear.
Anwar El-Sadat's open door policy changed all this. As Ahmed Bahaaeddin once said, the open door was loose on the hinges. As the middle class quietly slipped into poverty, charlatans began amassing wealth. Government employees were impoverished, and the self- employed fared only slightly better.
Under Mubarak, the middle class continued to shrink. As the government discontinued the practice of offering jobs to all graduates, unemployment rose drastically, and financial betterment through college education became a distant memory.
Egypt's economy grew under Mubarak, but the fruits of prosperity were confined to the rich. The poor were left behind, living miserably in informal housing that encircled the capital, and other cities, like explosive belts waiting to ignite.
Corruption took root, as it became habitual for officials to demand bribes point blank. To get anything done, perfectly legal paperwork included, you had to pay.
If fanaticism and extremism needed a fertile soil to grow, this was it. In the absence of equitable policy and a strong middle class, moral decay set in. The sorry mix of sectarian sedition, sexual harassment, and drug addiction, to which we've been introduced in recent years, was only to be expected.
Let's not waste time comparing Nasser with Mubarak. Suffice it to say that we must start taking better care of the middle class. Nasser knew the importance of the middle class and was able to expand it and this was his greatest legacy. Mubarak allowed the middle class to erode, shedding any decency along the way, and this is his worst legacy.
But Mubarak is not the only one to blame. We have to examine the manner in which the middle class failed to defend itself after Nasser. One reason for the demise of the middle class is that Nasser didn't leave this class with the democratic means to defend itself and its values. Nasser kept things on the right track as long as he lived. But the undemocratic setup he created was woefully incapable of defending this track when he was gone. So although Nasser's heart was in the right place, his disdain for democracy undermined his legacy of social justice.
Now we need a leader who knows how to embody the people's will without suffocating their freedom of choice. Nasser, as Iraq's late poet Al-Gohari once said, was a man of great successes and great failures. What this country needs at present is a leader of Nasser's stature minus his lust for power. We need someone like Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who was willing to renounce power to empower his own people.
What we need is not the 1952 edition of Nasser, but a 2011 edition of the great leader. We need someone with Nasser's stature and sense of justice, and we need him to be also democratic.