A frog observing the boiling water

During the past 70 years, the entire structure of the Egyptian society has changed radically. From the elite Turkish origin pashas, to the ruling military generals. From labor returning to Egypt with Gulf money and ideas, to governments lead by businessmen. Those various social classes that emerged affected the whole fabric of the Egyptian society over the years. This articles tries to observe the next shifts in the Egyptian society.

I’ve lived my whole life in Egypt, but two years ago I moved to the Netherlands for work and since then a lot have changed in the Egyptian society. The problem with living abroad is you never see things change gradually. You take a snapshot of life as you know it before you travel and that’s it. Things as simple as language progression stop, new words and slang starts to evolve and without exposure, you’ll never start adopting them.

Here comes the obligatory reference to the horrible experiment held by Friedrich Goltz. He first dropped a frog into boiling water and it jumped instantly, because of the sudden change in temperature. Then he put a frog in warm water and slowly heated it and the frog died. He theorized that the frog kept trying to adapt to the slowly changing temperature until it became too weak to jump out and died. Although the experiment was proved to be wrong (if you drop a frog in boiling water it will die instantly), but it remains as a useful anecdote to explain the difference between gradual and sudden change.

Photo © 2010 J. Ronald Lee.

In 2011 a revolution broke out in Egypt, and although for an outsider things seem the same after six years, this is not the case. A lot have changed, mainly in people’s own goals and perception of each other, and mainly in the generation that’s supposed to be the future of that country. I’m not in a place to discuss those changes as my opinion will be hugely biased, but I’m in a place to observe the changes that happened since I’ve left the country two years ago.

What you’re going to read is the observations made by a frog that was in the gradually heated water, left it, and then was dropped into the water again after it started to boil.

The Gap Is Getting Wider

I was born into an upper-middle class family, a family that could provide its two children with what they needed. I’ve never felt that my parents deprived me of something that I wanted, but when I wanted something that I knew they couldn’t afford I simply wouldn’t ask.

One of the benefits of such a family would always be a membership in an elitist “Sports Club”. Those sports clubs are actually more social than sport, it’s a place where fathers discuss their businesses or mothers gossip around while their kids are in sports training. It’s a place where hormonal teenagers would go in groups of boys and girls, because otherwise it would be called a date and that’s socially unacceptable.

Now if you’re familiar with Egyptian social composition, you’d be familiar with satellite cities and compounds that forms around Cairo, if not this article and this book are a great reference. In short, the government planned for years to reclaim the desert surrounding Cairo as affordable housing, but it turned out as gated compounds for the rich and wealthy.

Geography though, is a bitch. Alexandria is surrounded from the north by the Mediterranean, from the south by lakes and marshland, from the east by other cities and from the west by desert. The only way to expand is naturally west, where factories were first built. This limited the expansion of the city, and thus people, poor people, who had no choice for affordable residence except moving would move. This greatly limited the ability to build satellite cities for the rich and wealthy as in Cairo.

This made the aforementioned “Sports Clubs” the only safe haven for upper and middle class Alexandrians to be surrounded by their own kind. Now that on its own came as an evolution, over the years, to the social divide between classes.

What makes the gap wider now is the services that those, sports club member, citizens can get that others simply can’t. From renewing your car’s license without the need to actually go the traffic authority and waiting in line, renewing your national ID, using the club’s exclusive holiday resort, and the most annoying of them all, private public transportation.

This new thing was introduced by the most elite, read most expensive, sports club in Alexandria (disclaimer: I’m a member). They rent public transportation busses from the government, the newest ones, and make them exclusive for their members, for an extra fee of course. Their form of gates and walls.

This extends to other things, the couple dozen high school students that were on our flight from Amsterdam to Cairo on a school trip to Europe with their supervising American teachers. The acquaintance that doesn’t pay salaries for his employees, although he just bought a holiday home in some members-only resort on the sea.

The wealthy are getting more wealthy, and they’re building walls around them to protect their money and the privileges they’ve gained over the years.

Premiums Are A Must

Any service in Egypt is almost always done better when you pay a premium, whether this premium was you actually paying money or knowing the person that offers the service. Take into account the example of the typical Egyptian coffeeshop, not to be confused with Dutch coffeeshops. In this coffeeshop you get your cup of coffee faster and exactly as you ordered because you’re a regular there, you also get a fresh batch of coal pieces for your hookah (sheesha) if you’re a good tipper. That Egyptian coffeeshop is a self-sustaining representative sample of the whole Egyptian society, but that’s another story for another article.

Those premiums were the norm, you’d always get your service but you would get it better or faster if you pay that premium. What changed is that you’re expected to pay the premium now to get your service. This is of course more noticeable when paying money, because that’s the most frequent case. Also, people that are doing the service would go through a lot of stuff just to get the extra cash you’d give them.

One of the most shocking examples happened to me after we landed in Cairo Airport. I was heading to the restroom when I was offered to use the restroom designated for disabled persons, which was of course cleaner and more convenient. When I refused, saying what would happen if an actual disabled person would come, I was told not to worry they would wait. This really shows to what extent a janitor in the airport would go to earn extra cash.

If you’ve lived or visited Egypt then you know we have a lot of people that do trivial jobs, from the guy that helps you park the car to the usher in the cinema that takes you to your chair to the guy that takes your bag and loads it in the bus when you’re traveling. This is of course normal in a country where recession is a 30 year old child that doesn’t want to leave the house. It’s also a way for people to make money and for the government to say that the unemployment rate is low.

The problem with all those unnecessary jobs is that you normally don’t get the benefit from the people doing them. They normally get paid by the place they work in, the cinema or the bus company for example, but they also make money from people that tip them for the service. The tip is now a must, and it’s not called a tip anymore but it’s called, quoting, an “earned right”.

The usher in the cinema gave me a “I hope you die” look when we didn’t tip him because he simply didn’t usher us into our chairs and the guy loading my bag into the bus told me that it’s his “earned right” to get an extra 5 pounds than what I gave him. The premiums are not a premium anymore, they’re part of the cost of your service.

Return Of The Gulf Jedi

We all, at least Egyptians, know the story of what happened in the 80s and beginning of the 90s. When the Arab countries, literally, struck oil they needed some sort of cheap labor to build their new endeavors. They found that cheap labor in the neighboring Egypt, alongside other Asian nationals.

Those Egyptians were mostly not-so-well-educated workers, let’s call them the “First Batch”, that lived over there and came back with money and ideas from the Gulf countries. Those ideas resulted in a shift in the Egyptian society towards a more strict religious beliefs and as a result a more strict community. The mini-skirts of the 60s and the 70s turned into headscarves in the 80s and the 90s.

The next wave of Egyptians that went to the Gulf though, were highly educated people. Engineers, professors, doctors, etc. Which is logical, you build the infrastructure and then find a highly skilled person to maintain its wellbeing. Those people normally lived in compounds in those countries, where it’s more of a western society than a middle eastern one. This also coincided with the rise of more open communities in the Gulf area like Dubai.

Those engineers, professors and doctors, let’s call them the “Second Batch”, raised their children in a more open community than the normal one in the Gulf area, and sometimes even more open than Egypt. The other option is that they’d leave their children behind in Egypt, with their other parent, and raise them also on the same more western values.

The thing about traveling to a Gulf country though, is no one plans to stay there forever. People always try to go there for a couple of years to make a shitload of money and return to Egypt to live a more prosperous life. Whether this actually happens or not, that’s a different story, but that’s how people think. What happened next is that Egyptians who work in the Gulf, the Second Batch, formed a new social class, a class that has a lot of money compared to their counterparts that stayed in Egypt. They start to join the aforementioned sports clubs, they start to own real-estate in one of Cairo’s upper-class satellites and they start to enroll their children in foreign schools, where the American or British syllabus is taught.

This forms a new persona of people that were raised on more liberal Western values, in contrast with the new members of the middle class that were raised on the values of the First Batch, the more religious middle-eastern Wahabi values. The two personas interact a lot though, they are in the same economical class which means that they mostly join the same sports clubs, live in the same satellites and enroll their children in the same schools.

From this interaction, you get a new generation that is a mix of both. You can see the lavish villas in Cairo’s satellites turned into a stage for a young Islamic preacher to spread his words. You also see the same villas hosting pool parties with a lot of liquor and bikinis, something that’s not very familiar in Egypt in the past 2 decades, at least not in the middle class.

The interesting thing that we still need to see is which set of values would win in the next decade. With the more strict Islamic voices going underground due to political reasons, this would be a tricky battle to come.

You Need To Sacrifice

Sacrifice is always a part of life, for someone like me leaving the country meant sacrificing the warmth and comfort of being close to my family. Two weeks after I moved from Egypt my father had a serious health problem and I wasn’t there to stand with my family in their ordeal. This was my sacrifice, my family and friends versus working in something that I like and living in a better society.

After the latest economic crisis, people started sacrificing a lot. You start by sacrificing the things that aren’t very important to you, the new phone or laptop that you wanted to buy doesn’t feel important anymore. Then you start looking into deeper stuff, the Kit Kats that you often love to have turn into a local brand chocolate that frankly tastes better, or at least you try to convince yourself that it tastes better. You start thinking about your morning coffee and whether you really need to wake up on that rich, golden aroma. You start to sacrifice small things and habits that you got accustomed to over the years.

This is normal during an economic crisis like this, everything becomes more expensive while salaries are the same or slightly higher. People start to give up on a lot of luxuries and nice to haves, and start thinking about the necessities. In our case though, Egyptians are fed-up and they’re willing to sacrifice anything to live a better life.

Since I moved from Egypt and I’ve been asked a lot by people left and right on how to leave the country. Of course I do not have a magic formula, I was fortunate enough to have good experience in a field with high demand and low supply, but I try to help in any way. I’ve been asked whether Canada accept people who don’t know English, how someone can find a job in the field of robotics in Germany, how can someone enter the furniture market in the Netherlands, how a mechanical engineer with good knowledge of programming switch his career so that he can easily move abroad, and a lot more.

People are willing to sacrifice everything to live a better life, whether that better life was in Egypt or abroad. A friend of mine decided that he would sacrifice his career, or the progression of it, by taking a lot of vacations so that he can travel and enjoy the world. Normally this wouldn’t be a sacrifice, but in a society where everyone is trying to beat everyone else, you need to put a lot of effort and work overtime just to meet the expectations of everyone around you.

In a crazy, dog eats dog society like that, you need to sacrifice a lot of stuff to be sane. Whether your sacrifice is your career, your friends, your love life that you can’t pursue because you can’t afford to get married, or simply your peace of mind. You need to sacrifice something.

To conclude let me again say that this article is merely trying to observe changes that happened during the past two years in Egypt. It’s not a “Gloat in your face, I live abroad and it’s better” type of article. This article simply tries to compare the present Egypt with the two year old one that I left.

This article also isn’t trying to remember the golden past, grandpa style, where stuff costs less and people were more polite. The sample of people that were observed two years ago is the same sample that can be observed now. Those were also a subset of my observations, the rest of which I chose not to share to keep the article short, it’s still long I know, or because I don’t have enough data to support the observation.

While some of those observations could actually be true and because of events that happened during the past two years, this can’t actually be measured unless we had taken a control group of Egyptians and isolate them for the past two years. So everything you just read may be pure nothing and I’ve wasted a couple of hours of my time and ten minutes of yours aimlessly. I hope I didn’t.