THE BLOG
11/05/2014 10:31 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

How State Failure Is Deepening Class Tensions in Egypt

Middle class mothers-to-be in Egypt know what to be prepared for ahead of childbirth, including the financial requirements of delivery at private hospitals. One might think that a mother basically has to pay the hospital's administration and the ob-gyn. But this is not it; they have to be prepared for tipping the nurses -- and this should not be underestimated. The mother and her family must tip all the nurses who served her as well as those who were present at the hospital but were not assigned to take care of her.

This is not the only case wherein middle class Egyptians are obliged to pay for services they do not get or do not want. Another typical example is car owners' obligation toward sayis. A sayis is guy or women who unilaterally decides to be in charge of arranging where cars would be parked on streets and intimidates car owners into paying for this service -- whether or not they need it -- although streets are public areas and sayis have no legal claim to the streets they control.

Middle class Egyptians who face numerous similar situations in their daily lives hardly complain about such commitments that they are intimidated to fulfill outside any legal framework. There is no entity to complain to in the first place. It is not practically helpful to complain to the police. In fact, it is not unusual in Cairo to come across underpaid low-ranking police personnel who expect being offered money in return for helping better-off car owners park their cars, or for allowing citizens to violate traffic laws -- or sometimes in return for nothing.

The problem is part of a complicated context wherein the state's lack of efficiency and failure to provide citizens' basic needs or maintain law and order among society created a peculiar relationship between society's classes. Many among the marginalized masses are deprived of their most basic needs, which prompts them to seek sources of income and support outside the formal sector's institutionalized frameworks. They often ask for certain forms of support from the fellow Egyptians of the middle class, whom the underprivileged can reach out to and deal with relatively comfortably.

The fact that the better-off among the middle class lead somewhat more conformable lives -- having received more expensive education and got higher-paid jobs -- leaves them with de facto obligations toward the have-nots. Normally in any country, the richer are legally obliged to pay higher taxes that would eventually go toward the poor in the form of services provided by the state. But the problem in Egypt is that the state fails to provide such services efficiently, which puts an extra burden on the middle class: Not only do they have to provide for themselves basic services that should have been otherwise provided by the state (they pay for expensive private education, health care, etc.), but they also have to be a source of support for the underprivileged masses, who are -- in their turn -- squeezed under much harsher economic difficulties.

It could be useful in this context to lay out the country's class structure in more detail. As Egyptian sociologist Ahmed Zayed points out in an article that first appeared Al Hayat and was translated by Al-Monitor, Egypt's middle class has become more diverse (socially and economically) and multilayered in recent years. Its top and smallest segment comprises ambitious entrepreneurs who aspire to gain influence and power and to join the elitist upper class. They try to isolate themselves from the masses by living in luxurious gated compounds on the outskirts. Next to the upper middle class comes the "backbone" of the middle class as Zayed labels them: These are "doctors, police officers, university professors, engineers, lawyers, technocrats and others" who strive to avoid falling into lower socioeconomic strata by giving great care to ensuring quality education for their children.

Finally, the bottom of the middle class is occupied by its largest segment, the underpaid employees and workers whose low income renders them close to the poor strata in terms of quality of life. "This segment is not only experiencing an existential living crises but it also suffers deprivation and the constant fear of falling to the lower classes," notes Zayed. They are keen on educating their children but they can only afford public and lower quality education, which further threatens their future.

At the bottom of Egypt's socioeconomic structure are the majority of Egyptians, the poor. Among them are the sayis, nurses, maids, cleaners, informal street vendors, street cleaners, security guards, factory workers, etc. Some of those can put food on the table and some are too poor to make ends meet. They are largely concentrated in the cities' slums, rural areas and Upper Egypt. The fact that they can only afford to provide their children with public education, which is essentially of low quality, leaves them doomed and unable to move up the socioeconomic ladder.

How about the upper class -- the elite? These possess the wealth as well as power and influence, including over the state's apparatuses. This small segment occupied by the biggest tycoons gained momentum in the last decade of Mubarak's rule, a decade during which corruption and crony capitalism became reportedly dominant.

The relations between the Egyptian state and the social classes, and how such relations "led important sectors of the middle class to revolt against Egypt's Mubarak regime" were analyzed by UCLA's sociologist Hazem Kandil in a 2012 paper. "Paradoxically," Kandil writes, "the Mubarak regime had courted the middle class for a long time and the latter did benefit from its privileged relations with the regime. However, the neo-liberal reforms undertaken more recently undermined many of the material and political achievements of the middle class, favouring instead a new class of tycoon capitalists linked to the regime. This created extensive dissatisfaction within the middle class."

That was in the lead-up to January 2011. More than three years later, the situation is changing to the worse. Pressure on the lower and middle classes is increasing in view of the state's continued failure to deliver at an acceptable level of efficiency as well as the absence of the rule of law, which results from the deeply rooted corruption and the weakening of the state after three years of protests and political turmoil.

Several indicators demonstrate the state's growing failure and lack of efficiency: 1. The frequent power cuts and blackouts, a problem that peaked in the summer and that the government admitted may not be fully resolved in the near future; 2. The crisis of governmental primary education. Egypt ranks as the worst country in the world in the quality of primary education, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report; 3. The state's persistent failure to resolve problems as simple as the growing piles of garbage in Cairo's streets.

The current regime, led by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, tried to give the lower and middle classes hope by propagating mega projects like the Suez Canal project, raising their expectations for a better quality of life in the future. But Sisi has not shown concrete signs that he has a genuine plan to reform the state and combat corruption. Moreover, he has not indicated that the burden will be lifted off middle and lower class Egyptians any soon. To the contrary, the regime's discourse emphasizes the responsibility of the citizens to support themselves as opposed to the state's responsibility as part of a social contract. And with initiatives like the Tahya Masr Fund, the government is actually asking the people for charity. Sisi continuously says in his speeches that any failure by the government to overcome the current economic problems will be attributed to citizens' failure to "work hard" and cooperate with the government in order to help it fulfill its goals.

Little does he realize that the country's crushed masses and pressured middle class have been already working hard to make ends meet, resolving to alternatives to compensate for the state's absence. Against this backdrop, the middle class might cease to become able to act as a link between the marginalized masses on the one hand and the privileged elite and decision-making circles on the other. In recent years, the middle class expanded the civil society, providing significant support to the disadvantaged through developmental and charity work. Moreover, the politically active within the middle class got across the poor's demands to decision-making circles and spoke on their behalf through available political channels. It is no wonder that middle class Egyptians chanted for "social justice" alongside the poor in protests throughout 2012 and 2013 within the famous slogan of "bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity."

But these channels are now being closed. Since July 3, 2013, the regime has taken a series of measures to suppress civil society and diminish its role. In one case in point, a young couple who ran an association that launched campaigns on rehabilitation of street children and sanitation were arrested in May on charges of training children to destabilize the country. More strikingly, the government has proposed a draft NGOs law that critics say would further civil society's activities and funding, and fully subordinate NGOs to the state. In view of these measures and others, the state is leaving less and less channels for the middle class to help the lower class or defend them in an institutionalized and legal framework.

The masses are now vigilantly patient. They have not yet claimed their rights from the state and the elite surrounding it, although they continue to expect support from better-off segments in various ways. For some time, they will wait and see if the current regime can make their lives better one way or another. But under the surface of this superficial stability, the relation between society's classes is witnessing deep tensions. No one can predict what exactly will happen once a trigger emerges. We learnt from January 2011 that apparent stability might as well be elusive and fake.