I have never met anyone here who is starving. They may appear to live in squalor and poverty but they have food, shelter and clothing. The perception of riches or poverty is relative to the observer’s personal experiences. Look at the houses and apartments here. How many have satellite TV and mobile phones? They have free education. They have a 9% unemployment rate. They have no mortgages, bank or car loans ( I am speaking of the ones designated as poor in foreign media and the eyes of tourists who do not ask questions about what they see).
The houses on the outside appear unkept and often dirty. Most people live in apartments – they do not consider they have ownership of the stairs, the entrance, the street outside or the exterior walls of the buildings they inhabit, therefore they do not pay attention to their appearance. They do not realise and probably wouldn’t care anyway, what we as visitors to their streets or homes think when we see the condition of the streets and buildings. Their houses inside are clean, well furnished and comfortable. Neither do they believe it is a good thing to show their wealth, so should you come to my street you will be astounded when I tell you the occupations and the businesses owned by my neighbours!
I saw a programme on TV last week – the showing of which was designed to give rational excuse for the protests in Tahrir Square. Logic was lacking in this idea as at the same time the commentators were telling us that these were for the most part – young educated middle class protesters – the future of Egypt, and remember they (or whoever was orchestrating the event) were smart enough to have their signs in English and French for the TV coverage. So who was manipulating whom and in turn manipulating whom else????
The programme was about the people who make a living from sorting the rubbish in Cairo. They showed the women sorting through the garbage. They sort and sell the plastic, glass, cardboard, metal etc. from the organic waste. I have to admit I don’t know what they are now doing with the organic waste since the pigs were killed in reaction to the fear of swine flu’. There is also a place near the City of the Dead, an enormous market that goes on for miles, which few, if any, tourists ever see. In that market everything saved from the garbage is sold – everything from scraps of metal to telephones, computers and even chandeliers, a veritable heaven for anyone with a gift for finding bargains and turning them into usable or decorative items.
The Zabaleen sort the rubbish and make a living from it – they do not merely survive on garbage. They are a basic version of our own modern day re-cycling plants. The difference being that we do it in big buildings with conveyor belts and our sorters use protective clothing and gloves, whereas the people in Cairo do it in the open air where they live and do not wear protective clothing. Just like our painters use protective goggles and masks but the painters in Egypt do not. Poverty is relative and perception is not unclouded reality.
For 30 years the Egyptian people have not had to even think about defending their own lives or their own homes – a fact forgotten until we all had to do it this week. It has been one of the safest places to live on Earth – due to the prominent deterring presence of the many aspects of the security forces instituted by Mubarak and we, as visitors, have not had to worry about thieves, murderers or muggings. That is not to say these people do not exist as this week we have seen they do, but we have not had to worry about them on our streets and we do not have to walk in fear at night.
I don’t know exactly the correct number but a massive percentage of the population hold government jobs which they work from 8 or 9am to 12 or 1pm which leaves them free for other jobs in the afternoon and many are lawyers, carpenters, electricians etc. in their second job. Their salaries vary depending on their positions but these jobs give them pensions and security for their families when they die.
Brief Facts to remember.
Basic food items are government subsidized.
The streets are safe to walk.
Education is free.
Investment is grant aided
Taxation is minimal.
A huge number work in government jobs which is better than our western social welfare systems.
Major employment sectors are tourism, construction and agriculture.
Only 9% unemployment rate.
I am not saying everything is perfect here but we should not lose sight of the overall picture. I look to the young and educated middle class supposedly responsible for the events in Tahrir Square and challenge them to come up with the specific ideas necessary to carry Egypt forward to the next millenium. It is unreasonable, lazy and reprehensible to throw responsibility for everything on the government of the day. It is also important for Egyptians to realise that their economy is also dependent on the economies of the world.
In particular their tourist industry, which is already taking a beating from the economic misfortunes of western nations, needs to be safeguarded and nurtured in these present times of change and chaos, not eradicated completely by civil unrest. Of all the damaging events I have witnessed here over the last 8 years the protests in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez are by far the most damaging and it is so sad to see this damage inflicted by the Egyptians themselves.
Until this week I believed Egypt to be a land of opportunity for those with ideas and energy. I would not still be here if I did not. However, it seems that the land of opportunity is not recognized by a nation living in it. I think, if anything, President Mubarak may have sheltered his people too much!
If you want to help Egyptians understand, grow and experience the better side of life…..invite them to visit your country, invite them to a 5 day working week – a 9 to 5 working week or a factory shift working week, invite them to experience the luxury of only a two week summer holiday. Invite them to experience the monthly pressure of mortgage, car and bank repayments. Invite them to experience the freezing cold of snowy winters. Invite them to experience our huge supermarkets and our high food prices. Invite them to experience the fear and danger of many of our cities on a week-end night. Invite them to experience the pain of seeing 35% + of their wages disappearing back to our government coffers without them even touching it Invite them to experience our plethora a laws and regulations they have no knowledge we live under. Invite them to experience our “lands of opportunity” Keep them for a year and then ask them to judge where the milk and honey flows!