Egypt: Apologies, social class, slum demolitions

A minister’s apology and resignation were a rare victory in the battle of the Egyptian poor to receive due recognition. But words and gestures are all the Egyptian poor can expect.

The resignation of Egyptian justice minister Mahfuz Saber was the culmination of a week in which Egyptian ministers inflamed public sentiment with remarks directed against the disadvantaged.

Nothing enraged Egyptians more than Saber’s remark that sons of street cleaners should not become judges—judges should come from “a respectable milieu”, as he put it bluntly.

The public uproar over the remark, expressed on social media and media interviews with ordinary people, forced Saber to apologise to street cleaners before resigning--or possibly he was asked to do so by a regime engaged in a constant PR exercise to polish up its image domestically and internationally.

But the outgoing minister does not seem to recant his classist views on the grounds that such discrimination is a staple part of the Egyptian way of life, and all the more so in judicial life—sons of judges wanting to join the judiciary are favoured over other candidates.

In defiant remarks after his resignation, Saber told the independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm that what he said did not contradict the principle of equality enshrined in the constitution.

“If two individuals apply for a judge’s job, and both have the same degree but one is a son of a beggar and the other has a father of mid-level status, we cannot consider them as equals,” he said.

“Besides, the body that makes judicial appointments reserves the right to set conditions for applicants,” he added.

Hardly two days passed before social class was again the subject of an ambiguous comment by an Egyptian military official.

The same newspaper published remarks by General Esmat Murad, the head of Egypt’s military college, in a TV interview.

The military college is the alma mater of all Egyptian presidents except Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first civilian president ousted by the incumbent one, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Murad was quoted as saying that in the vetting process for military college applicants, the financial circumstances of their families are not a determining factor but “we select sons of respectable families who love the homeland and are willing to sacrifice their lives for it without hesitation or fear”.

It is not clear from this terse remark if the sons of street cleaners and others of humble background meet the ill-defined criteria of social respectability.

Before the storm over Sabir’s remarks settled down, another Egyptian minister reignited the issue of class division between the rich and poor in the country.

The Minister of State for Urban Development and Shantytowns Laila Iskandar reportedly told a conference of the political science department of Cairo University that one of the main causes for shantytowns in Egypt is migration of people of Upper Egypt to Cairo and Alexandria.

A village in Upper Egypt. (Al-Ahram)

A village in Upper Egypt. (Al-Ahram)

The Sayyid, Arabic for Upper Egypt, has the country’s most economically marginalised provinces with the highest unemployment rate and poverty levels.

“I don’t know how we will bring the Sayyidis back to their provinces,” she was quoted as saying.

The remark, as she said later in apologetic terms in an interview with the daily Al-Watan, was misconstrued and her role as a minister is “to serve the people”.

Iskandar, helplessly admitted that Egyptian ministries are bickering over state-owned land, especially prime land, and whether it should be given to the poor or to investors.

Surrealistically insensitive remarks by top officials—some against the poor, others against the obese--and their outlandish promises—like a claim to a cure to Aids and Hepatitis C—are all déjà vu for an Egyptian public tired out by lack of tact and blatant prejudices demonstrated by top officials time and again.

There is also a fatigue--among some, not all, Egyptians--of the repressive policies, a brutal police force that acts with impunity and farcical court rulings in kangaroo trials of opponents.

The video below published on the website of Al-Masry Al-Youm was filmed on May 15 in a shantytown near Cairo, only days after Iskandar’s controversial remark.

The video shows the Izbit Abu Qarn shantytown after it was leveled by municipal bulldozers.

Weary residents tell of how they were approached by representatives of an investor who asked them to leave their shoddy homes in return for very little money. A few days later, their neighbourhood was torn down and they were made homeless after suffering abuse at the hands of the police, the residents said.

The demolition drive against illegal constructions and street vendors in Cairo is in full gear—the target is to free up land for investment and restore some order to the chaotic Egyptian capital, says the government.

But this drive is punctuated by police violence and random destruction of people’s livelihoods without offering viable alternatives—low-cost housing, jobs, market spaces--for millions of Egyptians who live in the ashwaiyat, informal slum settlements, and earn their living from informal activities.

The residents are not holding much hope for a forthcoming solution or even a perfunctory apology like the one made by the shantytown minister to the Sayyidis.

A very different sort of apology came from Egypt’s tourism minister over a discriminatory practice of a restaurant in a suburb of Cairo against a Saudi man who was denied entry for wearing the traditional Arab robe.

A video capturing the restaurant staff member refusing entry to Saudi man.

Minister Khalid Ramy personally received the Saudi man to extend his apologies, stressing that the incident does not reflect the values of Egyptians towards tourists and fellow Arabs.

The restaurant was ordered to shut down for a month.

Egyptian tourism minister personally apologised to the Saudi national. 

Egyptian tourism minister personally apologised to the Saudi national. 

It is worthy of note that discrimination against certain categories of Egyptian customers, often for the clothes they wear or having the wrong accent, are not uncommon in restaurants and hotels.

Ordinary Egyptians are denied access to many beaches, especially in Red Sea resorts popular with foreign tourists.

But rarely do these Egyptians receive any sort of apology from anyone, let alone the minister himself.

Ramy’s apology to the Saudi national, though for the right reason, is not dissimilar from the apology that Sweden had to make to Saudi Arabia over remarks by Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom in which she criticised the subjugation of women and human rights abuses in the conservative kingdom.

For Egypt, Saudi Arabia is a major donor and investor; it is the Egyptian regime’s main backer; for Sweden, and other Western countries, Saudi Arabia is a key business partner. The apology made to the Saudi Kingdom and its nationals signifies more than a gesture; the ones made to the Egyptian poor do not.