By S.G. Kazolias. Ask someone who has just returned from a Nile cruise or a resort in the Red Sea, just how dire Egyptians are and you will probably get a blank look and “huh?”. It is easy for tourists to travel to Egypt without seeing the country they are visiting. Tourists on a Nile cruise are taken by bus from the ship to a temple or shops and back and never venture into the poor streets of a country in crisis:
Egypt on the brink
- ‘Officially’ unemployment is 12% (25% for youth)
- 40% of the work force is in the uncontrolled informal sector
- Inflation is officially 25%; 35% for household items; the pound has lost half its value since floatation in November 2016
- 28% of the population live at or below the poverty line of $54 a month
- Water resources are low and threatened; food is increasingly unaffordable
- Builders in the construction sector are going bankrupt while Egyptians are in desperate need of housing
The government subsidizes some foods and water so people can eat. As Egyptians grow sugar cane, their average consumption is as high as 30 kilos a year. Many can afford only bread. Egypt has recently been named the country with the highest obesity rate in Africa: 70% are overweight, 40% are obese . This has nothing to do with good eating.
“Egyptians buy up to five loaves a day at a tenth of their cost,” writes The Economist. The IMF, the World Bank and Western donors want Egypt to reduce food and fuel subsidies. But when the government tried to reduce subsidies in March, 2017, Egyptians rioted throughout the country.
One major source of Egypt’s woes is uncontrolled population growth. There are an estimated 100 million Egyptians today. That is twice as many as in 1985, and that population is expected to grow by at least 20 million in the next ten years. This is unsustainable.
“I have four wives,” the skipper of our Faluka bragged as one of his sons sailed us around the Nile at Aswan. I didn’t ask how many children he had because I knew the answer would upset me even further.
Tourists see children along the banks of the Nile, tending a few goats, cows or camels in images thousands of years old without asking themselves ‘why aren’t those kids in school?’ Yet, by African standards, literacy is high: 73% according to US government sources.
Everywhere stand the concrete shells of buildings which had begun but where work has stopped because money ran out. In the southern desert between Aswan and Abu Simbel, the guide says that the cities we see built in the desert are to be homes to over four-and-a-half million people. But work here too has all but shut down. The canals from Lake Nasser are there, intended to turn the desert green. The people are not.
Over 5,000 building contractors faced bankruptcy in 2017. The government voted an aid package but the money didn’t make it to the contractors in time to get building again. It is not only the doubling of costs of materials due to inflation. What the military Brass does not own, they have their sticky fingers in. Corruption remains an obstacle.
Nobody knows the exact amount of the military budget (Top Secret) and nobody believes General al-Sissi when he says it is 1,5% of GDP, which would make it less than 2,5 billion dollars a year. Many experts suggest the military budget could be as high as 40% of GDP.
The housing ministry has estimated that “500,000 new homes need to be built every year for five years to keep pace with the expanding population and to address the estimated backlog,” the country’s Housing Ministry said in 2016. This is an understatement, even if you accept the low standards implied by the words “social housing.”
I arrived once again for a new election. But no tourist will see the campaign posters for General al-Sissi who overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013, thus putting an end to the Arab Spring and opening a new phase of fundamentalist insurrection.
It was hard to miss the election fever Sissi whipped up during my last visit just before the 2014 ballot in which, observers concur, he made sure he was elected president. Fighter jets would fly low over urban areas to reassure the population the country was in good hands. Egyptians love their military.
But this year’s elections are low key. There are no al-Sissi posters where tourists will see them. The General has effectively jailed, banned or harassed his opposition out of the elections and, as he was running alone, hand picked a little known parliamentarian, from a small party which votes for the government, to run against him. Any opposition member who calls for a boycott faces arrest.
Unless you read the reports, you wouldn’t know that the government jails, tortures, disappears and executes thousands, very often without pretending a judicial process exists. Amnesty International paints a picture as bleak as any of the days under Hosni Mubarak whose government fell with the Arab Spring.
Unless you bothered to take the time to visit a Coptic Church (not on the circuits) and saw the heavy military presence with tanks, APCs, and soldiers, you might believe the rosy picture your guide gives you. He won’t talk about radicalized Muslims beating Christians in the streets or shooting and bombing worshippers, or that as much as 15% of the population is Christian.
“In school kids learn about ancient Egypt,” one Copt told me, “and then jump from the Roman Empire to the Muslim Conquest as if nothing happened for hundreds of years in between.”
Islamist insurrection and saber-rattling on the borders
Today Egypt is fighting an Islamist insurrection in the Sinai and along the Libya/Tunisian borders in the West. With so many angry, unemployed and poor youth, the Jihadists have little trouble finding recruits. The repression after the coup in 2013 drove many Morsi supporters to take a more radical stand. It was recently reported that scores of army officers had gone over to the fundamentalists and that thousands of soldiers were discharged because of their radical views.
Egypt’s woes are growing in the South too. Already faced with a water shortage, due to population pressures and poor water management, a dam the Ethiopians have built on the Blue Nile could reduce the Nile’s water in Egypt by as much as 40% over the five years it will take Adis Ababa to fill it. Egypt has threatened military action to prevent this.
Cairo’s relations with Sudan, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and which could increase its use of Nile water, are growing sour too. Especially since Sudan has lent a Red Sea Island to Turkey which Egypt fears will become a military base. Turkey also supports the Muslim Brotherhood and is challenging Egypt in its natural-gas filled Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean.
In January Egypt warned Turkey of military action if they go ahead with plans to explore for deposits and infringe on Cairo’s agreement with Nikosia. Turkey, which illegally occupies Northern Cyprus with 40,000 troops, claims that presence gives them access to the gas in the zone.
No, tourists won’t see the poverty, nor the tension, even when they are taken into town to visit the colorful upscale markets and bazaars. What goes through the minds of those paid to ape age-old traditions in front of clueless tourists? Just walk two streets off the beaten track and you will see a country simmering under multiple pressures.
You are even less exposed in the heavily guarded and fenced off Red Sea Resorts where people don’t get out to see Egyptians at all, other than for an organized camel ride or a desert trek in four-wheel drives. You could be excused for believing that Egypt is your Agatha Christie image put on by those who work the resorts with their all-you-can-eat buffets, alcohol fountain bars and luxury bathrooms where you can shower to your heart’s delight after swimming in one of the many pools or a nice round of golf. Did I say they are building golf courses in the desert?