Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1188, (13 - 19 March 2014)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1188, (13 - 19 March 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The search for social justice

Social justice was a main demand of the 25 January Revolution, but revolutionary hopes for a just society have soured over the past three years, writes Gihan Shahine

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was the so-called Friday of Rage on 28 January 2011. Shams was heading to work at an old people’s home in the populous Cairo district of Ain Shams when she found crowds of people demonstrating in her way.

“I just couldn’t resist joining the protests and did not really care if it would make me late for work,” Shams reminisced. “I was up to my ears in the hardships of poverty, and I felt something had to be done to end corruption and social injustice.”

Her face seemed to light up at the memory of the 18-day revolt, which ousted former president Hosni Mubarak. It was a time when Shams at least had hopes and dreams of a better and fairer world, though those dreams seem to have faded over the past three years.

Today, Shams’s tired looks and loss of weight tell of how the past three years have taken their toll on her due to the worsening economy. “Nothing has happened since the revolution,” Shams said with a sigh. “Yes, my salary has risen to LE1,500, but that can hardly cover expenses due to the recent hikes in the price of food and other basic needs. I no longer have high expectations. It is obvious how the political elite mobilise the poor to serve their own agendas.”

As the only breadwinner in a family of seven, including a husband suffering from a chronic psychological problem, four school-age children and a mother-in-law suffering from cancer, life is not plain sailing for Shams.

Shams, however, is not alone. Heading to the up-scale suburb of Tagammu Al-Khamis, the high fences of a deluxe compound in Al-Qattamiya seem to gaze back from afar. Hanan, a maid who lives in an informal area on the outskirts of Nasr City, gazes back and turns her head away as if in despair.

“All the government’s policies are designed for the sake of those people,” she said, referring to the country’s economic elite, who, she says, “own the country”. Quality housing is not an option for Hanan. A lodging of four brick walls and a ceiling in an informal area with poor infrastructure, little access to drinking water and frequent electricity cuts is the most Hanan can afford at the moment.  

“Nobody seems to care about the poor. Successive governments have talked about social equity and improving the lives of the poor, but we know that this is all media propaganda and we have to fend for ourselves,” Hanan said, also the mother of a two-year-old girl.

“We do not want more demonstrations, and we do not want more elections. All we want is the stability and security that will allow us to work and feed ourselves because we know that nobody – excepting of course in the heavens above — will ever bring us justice.”

Almost all the post-revolutionary governments and political groups, including the current interim post 30-June cabinet, seem to have embraced the idea of social justice, which featured prominently in the 2011 Revolution. Yet, all seem to have failed in that mission, instead preserving the status quo of the Mubarak era, which has even worsened under the onslaught of political instability.

“People have to understand that three years are nothing in the history of revolutions,” argues prominent sociologist Ali Leila. “We are suffering from a post-revolutionary economic recession, political instability, labour strikes and the huge legacy of poverty. So we need to work for five years or more before any progress can be attained, especially in the field of social justice.”

After all, many would agree with Leila that Egypt is now recovering from more than 30 years of a “total absence of social justice,” this driving millions onto the streets in the 25 January Revolution that put an end to the corrupt 30-year rule of former president Hosni Mubarak.

SOCIAL INJUSTICE UNDER MUBARAK: Although the 25 January Revolution was spearheaded by the middle and upper-middle class “Facebook young people” in their quest for democracy and freedom, a three-year study by the International Republican Institute (IRI) estimates that around 46 per cent of the people who joined in the 25 January Revolution also participated for economic reasons, including low standards of living and unemployment.

Under the Mubarak regime, the government’s economic policies and corruption took a particular toll on Egypt’s vast poorer strata. The economy remained largely stagnant, hardly allowing small and medium-sized businesses to grow and instead providing privileges to big businesses. Experts suggest that 20 per cent of the people monopolised 60 per cent of the GDP in Egypt at the time and five per cent of business moguls were in control of the country’s economy.

A recent study on social justice and urbanisation by urban planner and human right activist Yehia Shawkat deplores how the Mubarak regime allocated 22 per cent of the housing, water and sewage budget to new and luxurious satellite cities outside Cairo, these being home to only two per cent of the population, while rural areas remained largely in oblivion.

Adel Amer, head of the Egyptian Centre for Political, Economic and Legal Research, similarly deplores how “the country invested US$885 million in building luxurious urban communities for the wealthier classes, who represented only five per cent of the population and who got land at hefty prices, without any return for the state budget or for the poorer strata.”

In the mean time, Amer added that the lower-class lodgings that were built for the poor under late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and continued to be built to a lesser degree under president Anwar Al-Sadat were stopped under Mubarak. Instead, a lower number of low-priced flats were provided for the poor at LE30,000 per unit, and even these could only be obtained by those with good connections.

Many poor families could not afford such flats, resulting in the proliferation of the some 14,860 informal areas with poor infrastructure nationwide, according to Amer.

“The Mubarak regime allowed a corrupt liberal economic system to develop that merged politics with the economy, concentrating power in the hands of a small group of selfish businessmen who monopolised power and the country’s resources and manipulated them for their own benefit, aggravating class distinctions and poverty,” Leila said. “Egypt was turned into a cake to be devoured by the covetous few.”

That corrupt system, Amer added, had taken its toll on productive businesses, leading to the “deplorable fact that Egypt now produces only two per cent of its consumption and imports the remaining 98 per cent.” By the end of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, “poverty stretched to cover half the population, 25 per cent of which suffered extreme poverty, literally scrounging for food in waste bins.”

The UN has recently released a report showing how food insecurity had risen significantly in Egypt by the time of the 25 January Revolution. “An estimated 13.7 million Egyptians, or 17 per cent of the population, suffered from food insecurity in 2011, compared to 14 per cent in 2009,” according to a joint report by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS).

ALARMING FIGURES: More than three years have passed since the 25 January Revolution’s calls for social justice, and successive governments have faced many challenges to realise the hopes of the poor whose sufferings have accumulated due to the continuing political turmoil.

According to CAPMAS, inflation rates surged in January to 12.2 per cent compared to the same period last year. It adds that monthly inflation rates also jumped to 1.6 per cent between December 2013 and January 2014. The overall prices of foods and beverages went up by 3.6 per cent, compared to the preceding month. Meanwhile, prices accelerated by 19.1 per cent compared to the same period last year.

Hisham Ramez, the governor of Egypt’s Central Bank, recently told the Egyptian daily Al-Youm Al-Sabea that the country’s budget deficit had reached LE240 billion, or 14 per cent of GDP, in the 2012/13 financial year.

In the mean time, the growth rate had dropped from 7.5 per cent under Mubarak to 1.9 per cent afterwards, according to Amer.  “About 3,550 factories have closed since the 2011 Revolution, leaving at least 23,000 workers in the throes of unemployment and poverty while capital funds of LE200 billion were withdrawn from the market and invested abroad by businessmen who fretted about investing in a country suffering from political instability,” Amer told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Amer agrees with a recent report by Egypt’s Food Bank, an NGO, which suggests that poverty has worsened over the past three years, with 42 per cent of the country’s inhabitants currently living under the poverty line.

A recent report by the government’s Information and Decision Support Centre also reports a rise in poverty and illiteracy as well as the deterioration in health services over the past three years. Poverty has particularly increased in farming communities, the report said, and about 1,000 villages in Upper Egypt have very poor access to clean water, sanitation and education.

Leila suggests an even bleaker picture of Egypt’s status quo, in which 50 per cent of the population is currently below the poverty line and 20 per cent are poor. The middle class, sometimes called society’s “buffer zone” standing in the way of conflicts between the upper and lower classes, has shrunk to 15 to 20 per cent of the population, posing a threat to social peace, he says.

“This also helps explain why crime has proliferated over the past three years,” Leila explained.  

The consensus among officials and experts alike is that unless the government moves quickly to solve the problems of an ailing economy and attain genuine social justice, there may be a risk of a new wave of revolution, a revolution of the hungry this time.

The post 3-July interim government that took office after the military’s ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi following the 30 June Revolution, and which has recently resigned after it had largely failed to meet the country’s problems, seems to have been aware of the challenges.  

It had undertaken a number of urgent economic measures to support the poor in the hope of appeasing public opinion. State-school students were exempted from paying tuition. The prices of subsidised commodities were reduced by between 10 and 15 per cent, and 15,000 job opportunities were supposedly created.

But these measures seem to have had little effect on the ground. The government announced price controls on consumer goods to prevent rising prices and monopolies, but food prices have still soared to perhaps unprecedented levels.

“We already pay LE150 for school tuition for my three kids, and it did not really impact on my budget to save that small sum. But the decision has probably made the country’s economy even worse,” scoffed one nurse who has three children.

“After all, the public schools remain crammed and the teachers hardly teach and force the children to take private lessons. Just look at the hikes in the prices of food, electricity and everything else as well. All the government’s promises have been just failed attempts to quell the anger of the poor out of fears of a third revolution.”

A maximum wage law was passed by the cabinet on 13 November, but has reportedly not been implemented. The law states that the maximum wage should be no larger than 35 times the minimum wage, or LE42,000. Former prime minister Hazem Al-Beblawi, who has recently resigned, had earlier told the press that a maximum wage plan was being applied in all the administrative bodies of the state and to those working in local government and the economic, national and services authorities.

But, to date, many insist that the maximum-wage law has not actually been implemented, a sign of bias towards higher-ranking employees. The severe lack of transparency over the salaries of high-ranking government employees has also been a source of public ire, especially among low-ranking employees and workers.

Despite the state’s limited resources, Al-Beblawi was also quick to announce on 18 September a decision to raise the minimum wage for government workers. Starting in January, the minimum wage was raised from LE730 a month to LE1,200. This new rate will cost the government an additional LE1 billion a month, according to an estimate by the Ministry of Planning, presenting new challenges to the government in securing the financial resources to put the decision into effect.

Nevertheless, it immediately sparked waves of protest in some 50 public and government authorities and factories nationwide. Workers in textile factories, public bus drivers, and mail employees were among those who have gone on strike when the government told them it could not afford to pay them the new minimum wage, while the decision also had a negative effect on the estimated 8-12 million workers formally employed in the private sector on low and fixed wages and about ten million others in the usually under-paid informal labour sector who were not included in the decision and are currently faced with the sudden hikes in prices.

Amer estimates that the decision also caused inflation to rise from 18 to 28 per cent.

Although the government’s plan now is to force a minimum wage on the private sector, experts insist that this will only exacerbate an already high rate of unemployment and increase prices, as businessmen will just get rid of their workers when they face higher production costs and raise the prices of their products.

“In the mean time, 1.5 million public-sector employers and about 315,000 others in the public-services sector who already get the minimum wage have asked for a parallel raise to meet inflation,” Amer said. This has caused yet another wave of protests among doctors, pharmacists and teachers, among others.

“The timing of the decision, not the concept itself, was extremely ill-advised in the light of the current budget deficit,” Amer noted. “The government has largely failed to keep its promises, causing more public unrest and further harming the economy.”

Labour syndicate members and human right activists have also deemed the minimum wage as being too low to meet the current inflation, saying that it will not bridge the social gap.  

WHAT IS SOCIAL JUSTICE? According to Leila, the recently resigned government lacked economic perspectives and resorted to piece-meal solutions to economic problems that failed to solve real problems.

“To tackle issues of poverty and social justice, the government must design carefully-thought through and creative strategies that tackle the root causes of the issues,” Leila said.

Many suggest that social justice could be attained through austerity measures, saying that attracting investments, improving the economy, creating job opportunities, reducing the inflation rate, facing down high prices and market monopolies, supporting public and private sector competitiveness, and fighting corruption are all better alternatives than increasing the minimum wage.

For economist Iris Boutros, the new minimum wage law may “create some” social justice, but it remains doubtful whether “that is really what social justice means”.

The consensus goes that society is just when it provides equal opportunities for all Egyptians who should also have equal shares in the country’s resources. “There must be justice in terms of opportunities and in providing education, health and social services that would allow all Egyptians to achieve a dignified life,” agreed Alia Mahdi, an economics professor at Cairo University, in an interview with Al-Monitor.

In the same vein, Boutros insisted that providing equal opportunities to all children is where the government should start. “Earning higher salaries affords many richer Egyptians with the ability to buy opportunity for themselves and for their children,” Boutros wrote in the Daily News. “Children living in households with higher wages attend better schools and have higher-quality tutoring. Better nutrition early in life leads to better learning and ultimately better incomes for that next generation. Better life chances are created with more resources earlier in life.”

Rather than cutting the income of the highest earners, Boutros suggested it would be “better to add an additional tax to those earning above a certain level to finance efficient programmes investing in early life nutrition and education and ultimately giving children a better chance in life.”

The newly amended 2014 constitution has made it an “obligation” for the state to provide social justice. That, according to Amer, means that the upcoming government and parliament will now be obliged to design and issue laws that will create social justice, or else their budgets may be deemed unconstitutional.

This may make headway, but many observers insist that the situation will still depend on the political will of the incoming president, parliament and government to attain social justice in a comprehensive form. “That remains the only hope for many Egyptians,” Amer concluded.

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