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The Cairo Elite War on Egypt's Democracy

The aims of Egypt's 2011 revolution had as much to do with removing the corrupt circles that kept Hosni Mubarak in power as with removing Mubarak himself. The recently approved constitution, however, indicates that these corrupt circles are still very much alive as it grants unprecedented power to a military and judiciary serving their interests. Economic grievances related to this corruption were of paramount importance to the masses in the streets; particularly the huge gap between Egypt's rich and poor. To many, this gap seemed perplexing. How could such a disparity exist when Egypt's average GDP growth rate during the period from 2005 to 2010 was 6 percent and the country received recognition from the World Bank as a "top performer?"

The answer lies beneath the statistics and with the Cairo elite, as economic growth does not trickle down in Egypt but is rather reserved for the top tier. While the Cairo elite was to an extent sidelined during Mohamed Morsi's presidency, this wealthy and small percentage of the population has recently taken the opportunity to reaffirm ties with the military in order to reassert its influence and discourage the economic demands of the revolution.

The group is comprised of Egypt's upper class, which resides in a handful of affluent Cairo neighborhoods such as Zamalek, Maadi, and el-Tagamu el-Khames. Members tend to own real estate not only in Cairo, but on Egypt's North Coast (the area from West Alexandria to the Libyan border) and on the Red Sea. Many are taken with a Western lifestyle and seek out, for example, European or American brands of clothing and electronics. Their interest in the West generally ends there, however; it is unusual to find members of the Cairo elite concerned with principles of Western governance such as social justice, transparency, checks and balances, or decentralization.

Indeed, in return for their loyalty to the regime, the state rewarded members of the Cairo elite with senior executive, judicial, and legislative positions that allowed them to supervise the fulfillment of their own lifestyle. Construction was completed on roads or the newest suburban compound, while public transportation was neglected and rural villages were left underdeveloped. North Coast and Red Sea property owners ensured that homes sit on land with potable water, electricity, and sewage disposal, while millions of Egyptians in rural areas and informal urban neighborhoods suffered from their absence. Members of Egypt's upper class used their own private hospitals, while 12 million citizens with diabetes and an additional 14 million with Hepatitis C attended low-quality public hospitals. The children of the elite studied at British, French, and American schools, as 23 million Egyptians remained illiterate and Egypt's public schools rank last out of 148 countries.

With such an insular lifestyle, the Cairo elite is separated from the rest of society and may view it as a kind of "other." This separation and outlook explains the culture shock much of the Cairo elite experienced when parliament became dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and by Salafists during Morsi's presidency. During this period, much of the upper class ridiculed these legislators for looking like impoverished citizens who had arrived at parliament directly from villages.

The demographics of political Islam in Egypt are such that members of the Brotherhood and Salafists generally hail from the middle or working classes. Therefore, the Cairo elite, threatened that their interests would no longer be front and center for those in power, are pleased to see the return of the military, which will more likely continue to foster clientalism and look out for their interests. The elite's opposition to political Islam, as it is currently a popular stance in Egypt, makes maintaining the political and economic status quo fairly effortless, with little public opposition. As such, the prospect of banning political parties rooted in religion and a constitutional drafting committee nearly absent of Islamists has as much to do with class as it does with religion.

In order to foster equality in such areas as education, healthcare, and employment, decentralization must accompany democratization in Egypt. So long as local politics are non-existent -- so long as public works in Asyut or Manufia or an informal urban area cannot be constructed without approval from Cairo -- the demands of the 2011 revolution will continue to be disregarded. From the start, the Cairo elite never shared these demands. Their wealth insulated them, providing them with the highest quality of bread, with freedom via positions of power in both the private and public sectors, and with a social injustice-free existence due to their stature in Egyptian society.

Thus it is not surprising that the Cairo elite has reemerged publicly since the July 3 coup. Academics, co-opted by the state, have returned to the political landscape to advance the agenda of Egypt's rich. Absent since the Mubarak regime, they have reappeared to support a centralized state by writing of the need for Egyptians to "guard the state" and "respect its prestige."

The demands of the 2011 revolution have shown us that the issue was never about protection and respect for the state. Rather, it was the people who were left unprotected and disregarded through the absence of a decentralized political structure. The hope for democracy in Egypt remains slim as long as the voices of people outside Cairo are once again marginalized.

*Mohamed Elmenshawy is a columnist with Egyptian Daily Al Shoruok, currently he lives in Washington, DC. On twitter @ElMenshawyM

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