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New realities
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 04 - 2019

Ancient Egyptian workers used to utter a shout when carrying building materials and ascending scaffolding from one floor to the next in major construction projects. Today, their modern descendants do something similar as they build the country's New Administrative Capital, or as I prefer to call it, the “New Electronic Capital”.
We will soon have two capitals in Egypt: the historical capital of Cairo and the New Electronic / Administrative Capital. Work is ongoing. Skyscrapers have started to appear. Electricity, water and infrastructure, the electronics of the age, are all being installed according to a master plan.
Development can also be seen in the historical capital. The national roads project is due to be finished by 2020. The metro is being extended to cover all districts of Greater Cairo. Everything is taking on a new look.
Let us hope that such advances can continue. It may be useful at this juncture to cast our minds back to what happened after the 1919 Revolution in Egypt, when prominent writers and artists came onto the scene.
Tawfik Al-Hakim, a pioneer of the Arab novel and drama, wrote “The Return of the Spirit”, for example, a work heralding the 1919 Revolution. Prominent composer Sayed Darwish wrote the national anthem, “My Homeland, You Have My Love and My Heart”. These years also saw the advent of Egyptian diva Umm Kulthoum, the prominent singer and composer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and the great actor Naguib Al-Rihani, all of them adding to Egypt's culture and participating in the Arab renaissance.
Now we await an Egyptian opera to mark the inauguration of the New Capital, the residents of which will represent a new social class that has a specific role to play. It is not the traditional aristocratic class, nor the newer middle class. It is not part of the lower classes.
Instead, anyone who walks through the streets of Cairo today cannot fail to be struck by the number of luxury cars, included models made by Mercedes, BMW and Opel. The owners of these can be met at five-star hotels and international schools, and they will dominate the New Capital.
When and how was this class formed and where it is heading? The social pyramid in Egypt has noticeably changed in recent years, and the emergence of this new class indicates more general social mobility as the lower classes have moved towards the higher ones.
After the adoption of a free-market economy in 1975 and until 1984, there were around 118 families who were either the owners or shareholders in 481 private firms. The investment of each ranged from LE100,000 to LE250,000. According to studies, these families later increased in number to reach 133.
Such families, now on the increase, worked as contractors, automobile suppliers, traders and merchants. Their businesses were not limited to trade. Those who had worked in the Gulf countries constituted a large segment of the new class.
Today, there are also the representatives of Arab investments in Egypt in the shape of the hundreds of companies now present in Cairo. This Arab capital, much of it deposited in European banks, is also used to finance TV programmes, whether through participating in production or buying broadcasting rights.
There are also Egyptians who have married into Arab families. And successive governments since the era of late president Anwar Al-Sadat have helped the growth and spread of such families.
Another group that has lately joined the new class is the Bedouin of Egypt's North Coast. Many years ago, they occupied land in this area when the price was just five piastres per square metre. Land prices later soared, with the “sands turning into gold,” and the Bedouin started to sell what they did not originally own. Many of them became millionaires, owning shops and restaurants, and their lifestyles totally changed as they started to eat pizza and drink cappuccinos like the tourists that were now coming to the North Coast.
In their own words, they “were blessed by Sidi Al-Agami”. According to their story, Sidi Al-Agami had been a sinner before God guided him onto the right path. “He came to the North Coast to worship God and wash away his sins,” they say, and after his death his grave was turned into a shrine.
Agricultural workers who used to live in the countryside are also part of the new class. Instead of working in the traditional agriculture of food crops, they have been investing in greenhouses and growing strawberries, flowers and aromatic herbs, all of which are not subject to compulsory delivery. Some of them also enjoy tax breaks.
Some have moved to work in computers and IT. Others work in shipping. We have also seen traders in lorries and imported tractors. They use dollars, speak foreign languages and buy expensive clothing. You hear them talking about Western brands like Chanel and Yves Saint-Laurent.
As for the money trade, this is now the most profitable in the world. Intelligence is a must for people who work in finance, including in contracting and brokerage.
When a person belonging to this class dies, a one-page obituary is often published in Al-Ahram costing his family LE1 million. A photograph of the deceased and the names of his family written in a large size font also appear.
Members of the new social class often live in 6 October City, Al-Sheikh Zayed, the Fifth Settlement, Al-Rehab and Al-Shorouk and enjoy privacy and quiet inside their luxurious compounds. They have their own music, including songs by Shaabi singer Ahmed Adaweya. Their children love US pop.
Does this new class represent a new kind of capitalism, or one similar to the old one that existed before the 1952 Revolution? The old capitalism was based upon serving society and offering services to the poor. People belonging to the traditional capitalist class were keen on building schools, hospitals and factories.
To increase their influence, families from this social class were connected by marriage. They formed alliances and founded successful firms, such as the Egyptian Company for the Press and the Egyptian Company for Linen. There was an alliance between the Abu Regeila and Sawiris families in transportation, between the Adli Ayoub, Al-Abd and Mokhtar families in contracting, and between the Dos and Ghabbour families in service companies, for example.
After the 1967 War, young army officers tended to marry into such families, helping to protect them in exchange for social rank. These families became “merged” with the government by marriage. Mahmoud Osman, son of businessman Osman Ahmed Osman, married the daughter of former president Anwar Al-Sadat, for example, and there were other examples of marriages between business and power.
Regarding the new social class, the percentage of the elite who have reached the top of the social pyramid in Egypt is estimated at about three per cent of the total population, or about three million people. They represent a mixture of the old capitalism, the military and the new categories produced by the market economy.
They have benefitted from the law, or in some case from the absence of the law. They have realised how to benefit from the free market, but the state has not always benefitted from them. They have not contributed to cultural or intellectual life. They do not belong to any political party or political trend. They have their own economic power.
We must think about how to make best use of them and how to direct them towards participating in building the future of the country.


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