More Egyptians join ranks of poor while rich get richer

CAIRO, Egypt –” I cannot recall any occasion in recent history when Egyptian university professors threatened to stage a national strike, much less actually do so. Ever since my own time among their ranks during the late 1960s, it just never happened. But today (March 23) Egypt academics have done it.

Today, I still have peers, colleagues and former students who hold long term positions at Egypt’s national universities. We weren’t paid well back then, but just as in the past, many academics and other professionals manage to obtain a few years of lucrative extra work in rich Gulf countries, allowing them to supplement their low Egyptian salaries with savings from abroad.

But even “moonlighting” isn’t enough any more. The financial condition of Egyptian professors has deteriorated massively over the past decade. Today, their average annual salary stands at a mere US$544 and lags far below the current inflation rate. By comparison, Egyptian private universities offer their academic staff ten times the salaries paid by national institutions, but at less than US$5,500 annually, they just barely manage.

So now history is being made, with professors in the country’s national universities demanding a modest 80-per cent wage increase — just to reach the minimal standard of living they had 10 years ago. The government has promised only to “study” the situation.

Egyptian government figures have pegged the annual inflation rate at 12 per cent, but experts are saying it’s really much higher, especially when the rising cost for basic food items is factored in. Even though the exchange rate between the American dollar and the Egyptian pound is declining, prices are still going up, signaling that the economy is in real trouble.

University professors are not the only ones steadily joining the ranks of the working-poor in my native land. The Egyptian Medical Doctors’ Association recently announced plans to stage a sit-in and organize protests to win more pay for its members from the Ministry of Health. The basic monthly salary for a new graduate MD working for the government is $40 (no, that wasn’t a typo –” I did mean forty dollars!). That means the vast majority of them cannot afford to open new private practices, which are urgently needed in many parts of the country. A very small minority of new MDs goes into private practice only because their parents are doctors with already-established practices, or are wealthy enough to fund their start-up costs.

Public school teachers are even lower on the wage ladder. Those fortunate enough to find jobs in the first place get just one dollar a day and receive no pay for vacation periods when schools are not in session. Many opt to work instead (or hold double jobs) as taxi drivers and waiters, earning tips to compensate for their low salaries.

The situation has become so serious that basic food items are often priced beyond reach for Egypt’s poor. Bread, which is subsidized by the government, has become scarce and 15 people recently died when bread lineups stampeded. It is all too common now to hear reports of parents committing suicide out of despair, because they can no longer afford to feed their children.

The government claims that rising food prices are due to worldwide price increases; and while this is a poor excuse for the little that has been done to rectify the problem, it is at least partly true. Egypt imports more than half its requirements in wheat and beans, which are the only source of protein for more than 90 percent of the population. Most families can’t afford to eat meat more than three or four times a year.

A major reason why food availability and distribution have become such critical problems is that Egypt has no national plan for food self-sufficiency (as does India, for example) and the situation is worsening every day. Many politicians have confided to me a shocking revelation — that the U.S., for political and economic reasons –” has always been opposed to any policy by any Egyptian government to implement plans for food self-sufficiency.

When a brave young Egyptian film director produced a powerful documentary showing how the nation’s poor actually live, he could not hold an audience. The film was so depressing that viewers would exclaim aloud in disbelief and walk out of the theater midway through it. What that film and plain statistics show is that the gap between the very rich and the desperately poor in Egypt is widening at an alarming rate; and what used to be called the “middle class” has lost so much ground it has almost ceased to exist.

Forbes Magazine recently counted four Egyptians from one family, the Sawiris, who have joined the ranks of global multi-billionaires. Their combined wealth is in excess of US$20 billion. But none of them builds hospitals, schools, universities, research facilities, or training centres to improve the conditions of their own people.

So even though Egypt’s economic growth rate was 7.1 per cent last year, the country’s grossly skewed distribution of wealth is threatening social peace.

And the government’s aggressive policy of privatization is further compounding the problem. Worse still, it does not retain any ownership share in the public sector services it sells. Nor does it regulate the market even for basic food items (apart from inadequate bread subsidies). It also relinquishes some services at fire-sale prices –” such as air-wave licence fees to high-profit wireless communication companies. And in a country where the Nile historically supplied the entire nation with potable drinking water (and could still do so with wise management), public water supplies cannot be trusted and those who can afford it, buy environmentally costly bottled water.

Similarly, the rich can afford to escape Cairo’s heavily polluted air on weekends to relax at their Mediterranean villas; but for those of the general population who must stay within the city day in and day out, cancer rates are rapidly increasing. The rich continue to send their children to private schools and universities and these lucky few know they are guaranteed jobs after graduation in companies owned by their parents, families, or their families’ friends; meanwhile unemployment among the so-called middle class and below is reaching more than 50 per cent.

Finally, I asked a friend, who is an academic and a former government minister, if there is anything left in Egypt that is still publicly owned. He said, in effect, there is almost nothing “and that little will be sold soon.” Sadly he added, “I think that if the government could sell the Nile itself, the Pyramids, and even my own family, they would do it.”

Tragically, in Egypt, social justice is just empty social talk.