By Amr Khalifa
A minister is gone but injustice remains. At a time when Egypt longs with the desperation of a hungry toddler for its mother’s milk for justice, its minister of ‘justice’ has been ushered stage politically. Mahfouz Saber’s mistake was not uttering a politically embarrassing classist diatribe, but rather it was saying a truth that both uncovered a regime and a society. That societal elites govern developing nations, in particular, is not a socio-political secret and Egypt is a standard bearer in that regard rather than an exception. But the record speed with which the naïve minister was dispatched speaks of a more sinister truth: the regime wants no reminders of the successes and failures of a revolution that dreamt of justice and social equality.
A hopeful, well put together young man, stands at attention, confidently, before a group of seated senior police officers. A successful student, one who had attained 89% in his senior year in high school, is asked why he would choose the police academy over other elite schools.
‘’To serve my country sir…if everyone served his nation in a field he loves his service would be superior.”
– “Great,’’ responds the senior officer. To the audience it appears the young man is a virtual shoe in for his dream but the fateful question arrives: ‘’What does your father do?”
When the young man realises where the conversation is headed he says ‘’an employee’’ but the officer finds the truth and says ‘’building guard’’. His next words decapitate the hopeful’s dreams of social mobility: ‘’dismissed, next!’’
This scene from an award winning movie Yacoubian Building, based on the novel by Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany, is precisely the class divide that the 25 January Revolution sought to address and that the ‘injustice’ minister shone a light on this week. In Egypt power is the cake the elite share as the majority struggles to find a day’s bread.
The issue exploded only 48 hours ago when Saber said on TV that ‘’a judge should be from an appropriate milieu that is suitable for such a job, with my due respect, to the cleaner’s son who [are] below or above [their position]’’. At a time when well documented criticism of the Al-Sisi regime is on the rise on TV, printed media and social media the deep state decided, and at record speed, that it could ill afford further wide spread critique. The minister officially resigned 24 hours later but was effectively given little choice but self-termination. Though many talk shows and media outlets recognised the move as mere appeasement of public opinion, Egyptian Twitter was busy congratulating itself in the messy aftermath.
But the question rearing its ugly head remains: is this scandal the tip of the iceberg? The answer is two-fold.
Though Nasser’s era saw many systematic errors and chose autocracy as a tool of governance, the Egyptian middle class flourished and public education became a social equaliser. As time wore on during Sadat’s rule and his open market philosophy infitah gave way to a burgeoning class of fat cats whose Mercedes dotted the Cairo landscape, accordingly, the middle class began to shrink. With Sadat’s assassination and Mubarak’s ascent to power the gap between the lower rungs and those calling skyscrapers, and eventually compounds, home widened to laughable levels. Naturally, in a system ruled by an elite that looks to truncate opportunities for power sharing, education is the ultimate carte blanche for entry – compared to short of time tested methods of land ownership, intermarriage and or illegal activity. But, as is well known, Egypt’s educational system is in a state of systematic disarray and, many would argue, crumbling.
In fact, in a recent lecture at Cairo University, a representative of the World Bank outlined the problem in these gruesome terms: 30% of teachers fail to show up for class and 71% of students receive private tutoring. Imagine what that means to the majority of the lower rungs of society whose existence is tethered to an income barely above two dollars a day. To say that prospects for rising through education’s doorway to most, if not all, elite positions in the foreign service, judiciary and the officer class, in both the army and the police, are minimal is a dark understatement.
But the monstrosity of a social system that closely resembles the Indian caste system lies in its invisibility and in that its enforcers are from within the ruling elite. Think about that for a moment, the very people who are decimated by classism and elitism enforce, in ways both relative and daily, the system that enables the powerful to rule. During British colonial rule titles such Bick or Beigh and Basha, sir and pasha respectively, were mainstays of social life and delineation often granted by order of the King. When the free officers executed their coup d’etat such terms went by the wayside officially. But they remained eternally engrained within Egyptian psyche often linked to popular and revealing sayings like ‘the eye never rises above its brow’. The phrase is a significant in understanding the underlying psyche and reflects Stockholm Syndrome par excellence- except, in this case, the kidnapper is the elite and the kidnapped the economically and socially disadvantaged.
Anyone who has called Egypt home for a period of time quickly runs into these class dimensions in any interaction with the service industry. From the famous Bawab, (doorman), to taxi drivers to maids and sabakeen (plumbers), there is a complex unspoken dynamic not of service but of servitude that goes, highly polemically, unchallenged by most. For the children of those belonging to the service class, middle class seems a distant dream and elite positions its impossibly far cousin. Indeed, it is commonly known that these workers are on the receiving end of much abuse, some it physical and yet more emotional, as described in both Egyptian cinema and literature.
With these complex social dynamics of education and classist elitism as a backdrop one could only look and think ‘hypocrites’ as the melodrama of calls for the resignation of the minister. The scene laid out here is no secret to both the powerful and the common man in Egypt. In fact, at a time when Egypt’s judiciary has come to be the regime’s executioner against its arch enemy the Muslim Brotherhood, with its face judges like the infamous Nagy Shehata who sentenced hundreds to death and hundreds more to life, such clearly politicised positions are all the more impossible. What minister Saber didn’t spell out in clear terms is a clear alliance between the judiciary and the executive not merely to fight the ‘terrorist entity’, aka the MB, but to maintain a strangle hold on power and to keep the general populous at bay.
In reaction to this public fiasco Mohamed ElBaradei, progressive former vice president, put it adroitly ‘’when the sense of justice abandons a country nothing is left’’. Many may find fault with his political positions from either side of the political spectrum but he is a keen observer of what ails Egypt and Egyptians.
With the failure of systematic change sought by the revolution it is no surprise that classism continues to be an issue for a society far too fond of its pharaohs for its own good. The dynamic of elitism is not one that is top heavy but rather a societal tango that must cease if Egypt is to dance forward.
Deny it if you wish, but a society sans justice and equality is a ticking time bomb.
Amr Khalifa is freelance journalist and commentator recently published by Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah, the Tahrir Institute, and Arab Media Society. You can follow him on Twitter @cairo67unedited