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Urban Society

Although the majority of Egyptians lived in villages as recently as 1988, cities, which have been important in Egypt for more than 2,000 years, continued to be important. Traditional urban society was more heterogeneous than in most other areas of the Middle East. Quarters, segregated along religious and occupational lines, were effectively self-governing in their internal affairs. As in villages, kinship relations provided a basis for solidarity, and relationships among families frequently overrode differences in wealth and social position. Prosperous families assumed leadership roles and took responsibility for their less fortunate kin and neighbors. The rapid urbanization that began in the nineteenth century created large residential and industrial suburbs and led to the emergence of a professional middle class and a working class. Nevertheless, elite wealthy families that had ruled Egypt for generations, and in some cases for centuries, continued to dominate the cities until the early 1950s.

The postrevolutionary ruling elite was believed by many to have come from rural backgrounds. In reality most of the elite came from the urban middle class and were sons of mid- and low- ranking bureaucrats. A few members of the new elite came from the ranks of the old elite, although most influential members of the new elite were military officers. Most of these officers held positions in the government agencies that were in charge of national security, but others also held important positions in local government and the diplomatic service. Below the top echelons of government, however, the military played a less important role. This situation was reflected in the fact that since 1952, only about 6 percent of individuals in lower-level administrative posts had attended a military college. Educated bureaucrats from the middle and upper-middle classes continued to fill the bulk of civil service posts. Since 1952 three of every four bureaucrats have come from cities, with one of every two coming from Cairo. About a third had fathers who were civil servants. Although the military's formal presence in the bureaucracy was limited, officers clearly made the most important decisions. The emergence of a military elite led to a new kind of civil servant, the officer-technocrat. Politically ambitious professionals had a significant incentive to join the officers corps, and officers were motivated to acquire professional training (see Training and Education , ch. 5).

Although the prerevolutionary elite lost its status as the ruling class, it was not eliminated. The land redistribution program of the 1950s and socialist policies of the 1960s compelled many old elite families to sell agricultural and industrial properties that had been important sources of their wealth. Nevertheless, most of these families were able to maintain their social and economic positions through their domination of the prestigious professions. The old elite had highly valued education before the revolution, and many families had sent at least one son abroad for professional training. Thus, the old elite had lost its political influence after the 1952 Revolution, but its investments in education enabled its offspring to emerge as the doctors, engineers, and top-level administrators of the new regime.

After 1974 the government encouraged the growth of private enterprise through infitah policies, and a large number of people from old elite families emerged as part of a new class of wealthy contractors, financiers, and industrialists. Many of these people, who had held senior-level civil service positions, switched to private practice, industry, or commerce because their government salaries had been relatively low. A person holding a ministerial-level position in government could earn up to 1,000 percent more by taking a post in the private sector. Joint ventures between Egyptian and foreign firms, partnerships for Egyptians in foreign firms, and commissions for Egyptians dealing with private companies all contributed to the formation of a new entrepreneurial class. By 1990 prerevolutionary elite families remained financially secure and socially prominent and had regained some political influence.

The middle class, emulating the old elite, recognized the link between higher education and prestigious civil service jobs. The government, which had initiated the development of secular education as part of the effort to staff the civil bureaucracy with trained personnel, has provided a secure, well-paid position to virtually every college-educated applicant since the 1920s. Prior to the 1952 Revolution, postsecondary education was costly, and middle-class families who were determined to send at least one son to college usually endured considerable financial hardship. Most middle-class youth could not afford to attend college, but they could still gain entry into the less prestigious, lower civil-service ranks by obtaining a high school diploma. Before 1950 secondary schools were not free, but middle- class families could generally afford the fees. As an increasing number of middle-class high school graduates sought government employment, the bureaucracy became overstaffed with poorly paid, white-collar workers who had little prospect of advancement into top administrative positions, most of which were held by university graduates. Frustration among low-ranking civil servants was an important factor leading to the 1952 Revolution.

After the 1952 Revolution, the Free Officers increased career-advancement opportunities in government, improved pay scales in the civil service, and expanded public education opportunities at all levels. To meet middle-class demands for equitable access to higher education, the government abolished college and university fees and introduced competitive admission based on special entrance examinations. The state continued to be the principal employer of college graduates. A government decree in 1964 required the civil service to offer jobs to all Egyptians holding degrees from postsecondary colleges and institutes. During the early and mid-1960s, when Egypt's economy was socialized, the public sector employed thousands of new mid- and upper-rank administrators, as well as tens of thousands of high school graduates. The annual increase in the number of university graduates soon greatly exceeded the number of positions available in the civil service. By the mid-1970s, the civil service employed more than 1.3 million people, and overstaffing became a serious problem in all government ministries. After the government introduced the infitah in 1974, it no longer felt obliged to hire every college graduate. Individual ministries determined the number of new positions that needed to be filled each year; once the quota was met, the names of other applicants were placed on waiting lists. During the 1980s, an average of 250,000 college graduates were waiting at any given time to be called for government jobs; the typical applicant remained on the waiting list for more than three years. This situation caused unrest among middle- and lower-middle-income students who had hoped that higher education would be their ticket to upward mobility.

Whereas the middle class was preoccupied with education and civil service careers, most urban Egyptians, who belonged to the lower class, were concerned about earning a livelihood in an economy characterized by persistent and extensive unemployment and underemployment (see Employment , ch. 3). In terms of occupations and incomes, the lower class was very heterogeneous and comprised three main groups: service providers, skilled workers, and unskilled laborers. The first group included artisans, bakers, barbers, butchers, carpenters, office and sales clerks, cobblers, drivers, household and hotel domestic workers, janitors, small shopkeepers, tailors, street vendors, waiters, and numerous other providers of urban services. The majority of service workers were involved in the large informal sector of the economy; they were not covered by minimum wage laws and did not participate in the social security program. A few service workers, primarily talented artisans and enterprising shopkeepers, earned sufficient money to support a family without the assistance of a second income; the more successful among them actually merged into the lower middle class. The majority of service workers, however, were generally unable to provide adequate food and shelter for a family on the income from one job.

The second lower-class group consisted of skilled workers who were usually employed in private or public factories. Many also worked in the construction industry as electricians, masons, mechanics, painters, and plumbers. Workers in this group tended to prefer jobs in the public sector, which employed approximately 42 percent of the industrial labor force in the 1980s, because government-owned manufacturing enterprises guaranteed job security, paid salaries that were at or above the legal minimum wage, and provided benefits such as routine promotions, raises, paid holidays, and sick leave. Most skilled workers were generally more financially secure than most service workers. Nevertheless, the typical working male who headed a household found it difficult to support a family on one income. To supplement family incomes, most workers held two jobs, permitted their wives or unmarried daughters to work, or received remittances from family members working abroad. Many skilled workers also migrated to other Arab countries where they received higher salaries.

Unskilled laborers comprised the poorest stratum of urban society. Most of them either lacked permanent jobs or were employed in low-wage, menial jobs such as street sweeping, trash collection, sewage-system maintenance, and grave digging. Males with no skills frequently found temporary work on construction sites, especially in Greater Cairo. Intermittent work was also available on the docks of Alexandria and the cities along the Suez Canal. During the 1980s, unskilled workers headed most of the estimated 35 percent of urban households with incomes below the poverty line. According to a study by AID, about half of Egypt's urban population lived in absolute poverty, and most of these lived in households headed by unskilled workers.

The infitah generally had an adverse impact on the lower class. Despite the substantial rise in wages after the mid- 1970s, real incomes failed to keep pace with the rampant inflation. Although extensive government subsidies on basic necessities alleviated the worst effects of inflation, most lower-class families spent up to 75 percent of their budgets on food. When the government announced in January 1977 that it would eliminate subsidies on selected "luxury" items, including beer, French bread, refined flour, and granulated sugar, the poor rioted in cities throughout the Delta and Nile Valley. In Cairo the police were unable to control the violence, and the government called in the army to restore order. The government canceled its plan to abolish certain subsidies, and since 1977, it has periodically expanded the whole subsidy program.

In addition to the food subsidies, some members of the lower- class benefited from remittances sent to them from family members who were working abroad. About nine of every ten Egyptians working in other countries were from the lower class. At least 1 million poor families received remittances from fathers or sons who were working in Libya or the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. The remittances raised household incomes by between 100 percent and 700 percent, resulting in significantly higher living standards. The absence of so many workers had also created a general shortage of trained personnel, a situation that permitted skilled workers to bargain for increasingly higher wages. In the early 1980s, for example, a free-lance tile-setter could earn about as much in one week as a government minister could earn in a month.

Although the living standards of poor families receiving remittances improved after 1974, the lower class, like the middle class, was generally skeptical of the infitah. Both classes benefited from Nasser's policies, which expanded access to education and employment opportunities, but they generally believed that reduced government spending on social programs, pared public sector employment, and increased incentives for private enterprise would undermine gains achieved in the 1950s and 1960s. The upper class, which accounted for less than 10 percent of the total population, supported the infitah because they benefited from policies aimed at easing import- export restrictions and from programs designed to attract foreign investment.

Data as of December 1990


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