- Life Style
Last week’s events raised a number of paradoxes that are worth reflecting on. While economy pages, especially in Egyptian state-run newspapers, touted the rise in exports and the World Bank’s praise for Egypt’s economic growth, accident pages told a different, more accurate story about socio-economic conditions in this country.
Over two consecutive days, three incidents were reported that are particularly telling. The first was of a college graduate who committed suicide after failing to find a job seven years after his graduation. The second concerned children from Sharqiya governorate who quit school to help their families by collecting oranges for LE7 a day, but were killed by a negligent driver. The third incident involved a young man who chose to commit suicide rather than serve time in prison, which would have prevented him from making payments on a tuk-tuk he had bought to support his family.
All of these painful incidents are not new. How can we forget the outstanding economics and political science graduate who, a while ago, committed suicide after being barred from joining the diplomatic corps because of his modest social roots. There was also the more recent incident involving youth from a poor village who died in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar when the ceiling of their room collapsed over their heads. The room housed 40 people who came to Cairo looking for a job to save up for their education.
Because such incidents are neither new nor uncommon in Egypt, I was disturbed to hear so-called experts from the ruling circle proclaim that a Tunisian-style uprising is unlikely in Egypt. These pundits pointed to the different situations in each country, stressing for example that the unemployment rate is higher in Tunisia whereas in Egypt the government has created millions of jobs.
Such statements actually demonstrate that the similarities between Egypt and Tunisia are greater than we think. Statements made by the ruling elite in Egypt touting a few achievements and downplaying any evidence to the contrary are very similar to official statements that Tunisians had grown accustomed to.
Egyptian government officials continuously assert that the standard of living has improved, pointing to the fact that Egyptians are buying air conditioners and cell phones, or consuming more Coca-Cola. At the same time, however, the collective death of young children who work in inhumane conditions is not even considered an economic indicator. Neither is the fact that many young college graduates commit suicide when they can’t find a job. It’s worth reflecting upon the words of Tunisian opposition figure Adel al-Shawus describing what happened in his country:
“For a long time, there were indications that this would happen because the government was isolated from the people. The government was arguing that all is well, but the reality was different.”
It’s also worth reflecting on the fact that the explosion that several authors, including myself, have warned about in Egypt is similar to the one that took place in Tunisia. Over the past two decades, the Tunisian regime has used several tactics to systematically weaken the opposition and to kill political activity. But the death of politics did not produce stability. It’s true that the weakness of the opposition rendered it incapable of taking initiative, but the protests were spontaneous and did not need an organized force. They were protests by ordinary citizens who, according to the calculus of the Tunisian ruling regime, should have given up politics in return for a promised economic boom. Instead, they found themselves deprived of both.
It’s not surprising that the Tunisian protests quickly turned from being about unemployment to demanding more comprehensive change. This counters claims by some in Egypt that people care only about socio-economic demands, and not democracy. It’s amusing that those who make such claims are themselves the ones who ignore the struggles of many Egyptians for bread and butter. It’s also not surprising that the explosion in Tunisia was followed by mass looting, which is a sign of the death of politics.
What the West termed a “Tunisian miracle” melted away with the revolution of ordinary citizens. It became clear that development built on foreign investment and the support of international financial institutions cannot hold out in the face of real tests. It became clear that foreign support disappears with the onset of a popular uprising.
Thus, the issue is not that unemployment rate is 14 percent in Tunisia but 10 percent in Egypt. The main problem in both countries is that ruling elites do not have a realistic understanding of the situation on the ground.
The biggest paradox was made evident in the former Tunisian president’s departing speech, where he spoke about being “misled” by his advisers regarding the situation in his country. Paradoxically, he followed this statement by telling Tunisian citizens that he had “understood” them.
Translated from the Arabic Edition.