Middle East

Cairo’s Changing Face

Egyptian protesters burn a United States flag during a demonstration in Cairo May 27 against the alleged desecration of the Koran by military interrogators. (Photo: - / AFP-Getty Images)

It seems everywhere you turn in Egypt there is a growing change. Cairo, perhaps one of the most bustling, fascinating and culturally diverse cities in the world, has a faint resemblance of what it once was. The once beautiful landscape of the Nile — accentuated by breathtaking buildings on its riverbanks, and palm trees as far as the eye could see — is now a loud, dirty, and overpopulated city. Government negligence, along with extreme overpopulation can be blamed for Cairo’s diminishing beauty. However, the changes do not stop there. In addition to Cairo’s lack of public beautification programs and the over crowding, its religious demographics have also seen change. For roughly the past ten years, there has been a forceful push of intensifying Islam, unlike any other effort in recent years. Contrary to widespread belief, it is not the actual religion that has caused this intensification, but rather the waning economics. On a weekly basis, a growing number of Mosques are being built literally within yards of each other. The amount of women who are wearing hejabs increases daily, while younger generations absorb religion at an alarming rate. Ironically, the rest of the world is becoming less and less concerned with religion. In most Western European countries, the Roman Catholic Church is not nearly as influential as it once was. Although there has been a strong reversion to Christianity in the United States of late, it is still not nearly as much of a commanding force when compared to Islam in Egypt. The clear difference between the United States/ Western Europe and Egypt is economic development. This takes us to question, how has this lack of economic development intensified Islam in Egypt?

The Question

Naturally, Islam has always played a large role in Egyptian society. However, it is safe to say that since the mid- to late- 1990’s, there has been a fundamental and obvious change in society’s bearing/ conception of religion. Therefore the question remains, what economic factor has caused Egypt to drastically change its societal appearance in recent years? Critics and scholars wrongly blame Islam, claiming that its influence is too overpowering, causing the people to become overly dependent on Islam. In actuality, increased dependence on Islam is a direct result of weak economic growth and development in Egypt.

The Reasons

The 2002 Arab Human Development report stated that unemployment is a “human tragedy of development” in the Arab region. In Egypt, there has been, and continues to be, a growing size of wasted human capital. Sixty percent of Egypt’s population is between the ages of 15 to 64, i.e. working age. It was once common for Egyptians of “working age” to find employment in agriculture or small business rather than pursuing education. However, today many of them are earning college diplomas (usually the equivalent of City College). Although education is not necessarily adequate in Egypt, it has improved and is consistently producing more college graduates then in previous years. According to the World Bank (Country brief, September 2004) The gross ratio of *tertiary level education in Egypt has steadily increased from 18.5 percent in 1985 to over 38 percent in 2000. Despite the fact that the total number of college educated Egyptians has risen, employment opportunities continue to remain constant, and have even been showing signs of decrease. As a result, a large semi-educated or educated population has been created, with little hope of employment in the future. The World Bank expects unemployment to decline in Egypt; the country will need to sustain a 5.5 percent to 6 percent gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate. However, Egypt has had only a 3.1 percent GDP growth in 2003, and even less in 2002, which is clearly not enough to cut unemployment.

One of the reasons Egypt has had such minimal GDP growth can be attributed to a critical setback that befell its tourism industry. Tourism was perhaps the most promising career in Egypt; getting a job with a large international hotel chain or tour group proved lucrative for the average Egyptian. From the United Nations Development Program country profile for Egypt (2004): “Tourism which accounted for 4 percent of GDP in 2000 and is overall the country’s largest revenue earner, employing of 2.2 million people, was severely affected by the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001”. Needless to say, tourism is still a huge industry in Egypt, but unfortunately it is stagnant and possibly even shrinking. Tourists are increasingly reluctant to travel to Egypt, due to the war in Iraq, the ongoing instability in Palestine, and the post 9/11 affect that still resides today. Consequently, tourism is no longer the promising profession it once was for Egyptians. The market has become over-saturated due to the amount of people competing for the same jobs, including regional neighbors (Arabs and Africans) who come to Egypt to work in the hotel/tourism industry. “Unemployment … remains high due to the slow growth of the private sector, while problems in the tourist industry… has exacerbated the situation” (World Bank country brief, September 2004).

Growth of Frustrations

With such common unemployment, young, middle class, college graduates have little optimism for their future. Day after day, it becomes more tedious to produce a better life than that which they currently live. This being the case, Egyptians (predominantly middle class) began turning to a higher power. Slowly, a growing number of people have turned toward religion under the rational that prayer will bring a better life. As a result, social pressure began to evolve. This pressure grew from the middle class and has now spread in all directions, becoming less about employment or expectation and more about “social norms.” For example, consider eight of ten women in a building who normally did not wear a hejab, who in turn begin to wear one with the belief that intensified religion will bring them a better life. The other two women in the building, who are not veiled, will feel pressured to do the same, even if they are content with their current surroundings. As the other eight women begin to veil not only their hair, but their face and eyes as well, the social pressure is flexed upon the other two women, who will eventually conform due to “normalcy” that has enveloped their surroundings. Imagine such a scenario occurring in one building after another in Cairo, escalated to the point where the non-veiled women are the abnormality in the city. This is how all socio-economic classes are affected from the frustration of the middle class. Therefore, the flow of social pressure to intensify religion is like a snowball affect, growing larger all over Egypt. This is the primary reason why in recent years there has been such a strong push towards religion in Egypt.

The Danger

As this social pressure leads to frustration, Egyptians are faced with yet a more detrimental emotion, that of hopelessness. Feeling hopeless is perhaps a more perilous sensation than anger or even hatred, because a people without hope are a vulnerable people willing to follow any sign of a better life. The same vulnerable people are the perfect audiences for radical speakers/ orators throughout Egypt and the Middle East who preach that America has defiled and attacked Islam. When Egyptians hear that their one source of hope (their faith in Islam) is being “persecuted,” they are willing to listen. Such speech, backed by observation of United States foreign policy, and coupled with this overwhelming sense of hopelessness, helps make them believers.

The concept of hopelessness transforming to vulnerability has been proven throughout history; one of the most powerful examples is that of Nazi Germany. Not that the Egyptian people and the Germans in the pre-WWII era had the same situation, but the one point to be made is that the German people supported Hitler and his extreme rhetoric (before the Holocaust began and Hitler was elected Chancellor), because they saw it as their only hope of a better life, not because they themselves were of the same ideology. The same holds true with preachers of radicalism and the Egyptian people who listen to them.

One might ask, if the average Egyptian believes anti-American speakers, why do they not protest against the United States, as they do in Iraq, Iran, or the Palestinian territories. The reason being is the authority of the state. President Hosni Mubarak has been in power for over 20 years, and has had his thumb pressed firmly on civil society. With that in mind, Mubarak is aging and soon there will be a change of power. If there were to be free and fair elections anytime soon in Egypt — there is a strong chance the people would vote in favor of a radical Islamist government, similar to that of Iran. To prevent such an ending, the United States has to rekindle hope in the Egyptian people, and show them that religion is not the only chance they have at a better life.

The Solution

The way to restore hope in Egypt is through employment programs, as well as direct investment that will translate to immediate jobs or ‘hope-building’. “Egypt’s economic growth is imperative for poverty reduction. Tackling unemployment by providing jobs for Egypt’s growing working age population is equally vital — not only for growth, but also for social stability” (United Nations Development Program country profile for Egypt, 2004) . Needless to say that employment programs/ development alone will not cure Egypt of its woes. The United States still has to improve its image in Egypt, and the entire region. This is perhaps the harder task, which would include solving the Iraq situation, a unbiased effort in the Israeli/ Palestinian affair, and a campaign of United States image building. But first, the United States can start by rebuilding Egypt’s economy and reducing its massive unemployment. The United States has given over 50 billion dollars to Egypt in the span of 25 years, approximately two billion dollars a year. However, the majority of it goes to military training and military education. While there is no need to provide more money, the United States must ensure that this aid is allocated efficiently, especially to employment. If the United States can help Egypt accomplish sufficient GDP growth, ultimately cutting unemployment in Egypt, there will be most certainly a change back to a promising Egypt rather than a hopeless one.

*Gross enrollment ratio, tertiary level is the sum of all tertiary level students enrolled at the start of the school year, expressed as a percentage.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Mounir Ibrahim.

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