TBE Meta-Commentary: In this piece, our fearless correspondent Michael Jeffrey Flackslashman offers a highly speculative reading of recent developments in Egypt. We aren’t sure he’s right about what’s going on, but we hope it sparks a broader discussion about changing socio-political dynamics and where they are likely to lead.
For background reading, please see Jack Shenker’s recent Guardian article on the wages of structural adjustment, a glancing mention of the middle class or lack thereof at Egyptian Chronicles, and this post by The Traveller Within, which isn’t strictly related but does have some bearing on the below points.
News Analysis: Bringing Order to Cairo’s Chaotic Streets
By Michael Jeffrey Flackslashman
Cairo – Were it not for the all-too-modern traffic snarls in the streets leading in and out, downtown Cairo’s Talaat Harb Square might recall a more genteel time in Egypt’s history. Named after a cherished nationalist icon, the square’s elegant facades were recently restored by a public-private consortium. Having defeated Cairo’s persistent grime, which renders most of the city’s buildings a uniform taupe, city planners are now attempting another task thought impossible until recently: taming Cairo’s traffic.
To do so, they are installing traffic lights, tricked out with cameras to catch scofflaws. Along with the familiar three-color traffic light, flashing lights have been embedded in the streets’ surfaces, to ensure that no driver can claim not to have noticed that the light had changed. New license plates are also being issued, featuring clear numbers and letters, rendering the cameras’ job that much easier. Pedestrian crossings have also received the luxe treatment. Walk signals at some intersections now feature a person of indeterminate gender doing the running man, a popular dance from the 1980s.
The transition has not been smooth, however. One prominent blogger posted a video of the traffic cameras snapping photos of license plates when the lights were green. On a recent ride through a major downtown square, the traffic lights were not yet functional, but the police, whose presence previously provided the only modicum of control, had decamped to the sentry boxes ringing the square. Even taxi drivers, who usually navigate the chaos with aplomb, appeared at a loss.
While government officials claim that the moves are part of a long-standing commitment to improving and updating the infrastructure in Africa’s largest city, critics in the opposition counter that recent developments are aimed at consolidating one-party rule, in hopes of installing the president’s son, Gamal, in the presidency.
The scheme to replace old, hand-numbered license plates with new ones, they say, is another way for the government to keep tabs on its citizens. Furthermore, they claim, it is no accident that the first place the regime decided to install new traffic lights is Talaat Harb Square, has previously been the site of protests, and also contains the headquarters of the Gad party, whose leader, Ayman Nour, ran against President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt’s last presidential elections.
Other recent moves, such as using fears of swine flu as a pretext to clamp down on the popular festivals of saint veneration known as moulids, which attract large and unruly crowds of revelers, and the rumored closure of Cairo’s Friday market, are seen in a similar light, as a government attempt to extend its authority, accomplished through a direct assault on the few venues for socializing and merriment available to Egypt’s downtrodden masses.
Independent analysts offer a more subtle reading of the situation. They note that the government of President Hosni Mubarak could install Gamal Mubarak without having taken these recent actions. Instead, they say, the government is attempting to draw support from the slowly growing middle class. Having decamped to the suburbs, this middle class is rarely seen in the affected downtown neighborhoods, but many members of the class maintain ties there, be they familial or professional.
Despite their invisibility to the casual observer, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is keenly aware of middle classes concerns. Having risen above the day-to-day struggles to put food on the table that many Egyptians endure, they are thought more likely to focus on quality of life issues. While downtown Cairo might satisfy tourists’ taste for the exotic, it is viewed as anarchic by many nouveau riches.
The NDP also recognizes that early cooptation of this new middle class is crucial. While the regime’s current opposition remains fragmented and weak, a challenge from the emergent middle class would be more difficult to write off as the work of fringe elements, and consequently harder to fend off.
The analysts’ reading of the situation draws partly on academic scholarship on the subject, which has traditionally viewed the middle classes as the driver of democratization, and partly based on Egypt’s own history. Many leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group, are drawn from the professional classes, who, after having become successful in their fields, might have expected a larger role in the running of the country, but were ultimately denied access to the corridors of power. The government seems keen not to let the new middle class, more a product of structural reform and the private sector than the professionals who form the core of the Brotherhood leadership, slip into the Islamist group’s waiting arms, even if it requires a recalibration of the regime’s bases of support.
Thus what started as a populist regime in the days of Gamal Abd al-Nasser, then came to rely increasingly on the military and intelligence services under Presidents Sadat and Mubarak, now seems intent on shifting to a third base of support, the emergent middle classes, just as the ruling elite (and just about everyone else) ponders the ascension of post-1952 Egypt’s first non-military president.
Whether these classes will ultimately give the green light to the strategy, and whether it will forestall a drive for change, remains to be seen.
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To help raise awareness about the changes to downtown traffic, Kanye West recorded a PSA for the government’s new traffic initiative, “For Your Car’s Sake.”