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  • Reform And Frustration in Egypt
  • Saad Eddin Ibrahim (bio)

Like many developing countries, Egypt suffers from overpopulation, resource scarcity, low productivity, a big and inefficient government bureaucracy, and sizeable foreign-debt burdens. Yet unlike many other such countries, Egypt has a unique strategic location, a superb climate, an exceptionally rich heritage, tremendous spiritual resources, and a dominant regional culture. These paradoxes of the Egyptian situation are currently fueling a three-sided conflict among an oversized, autocratic state, a persistent Islamic militancy, and the budding forces of civil society and democracy. This struggle can be understood as revolving around four sets of issues, which might be called, respectively, the social question, the question of the economy, the question of civil society and political participation, and the question of Egypt’s place in the region.

Egypt’s social question is a problem of numbers, of distribution, and of equity. In 1800, Egypt had a population of about 5 million, which by 1900 had doubled to 10 million; today, it is around 60 million—a 1,200 percent increase in less than two centuries. All of this population growth, moreover, has taken place in the fertile valley and delta of the Nile River, a ribbon of territory that makes up only 5 percent of present-day Egypt’s total land area. The remainder of the country is a barren and unpopulated desert.

In and of themselves, numbers are not a problem. They become one, however, if most people are undereducated and underproductive, or worse, unemployed and unemployable. The productivity of the average [End Page 125] Egyptian is only about a fifth of that of the average European. Compounding the problem of low productivity is that of the high dependent-to-earner ratio in a demographically “young” society: with its birthrate of 28 per 1,000, more than half of Egypt’s people are under the age of 20, and the dependency ratio is 4 to 1. To put it another way, these figures mean that no more than a fifth to a quarter of the population is actively and gainfully employed. 1

Despite gallant efforts, the country’s economic base, especially in agriculture, has grown only modestly. The last two centuries’ twelvefold population increase has been accompanied by a less-than-twofold increase of arable land (from four million to seven million acres). The amount of arable land available per capita has dwindled from one acre to one-eighth of an acre. Pushed from the countryside, more and more of the rural population first streamed and then flooded into the cities. In 1800, only a twentieth of all Egyptians lived in urban areas, whereas now fully half do.

Of the migrants, only about one in four comes to the city with anything meaningful in the way of education, skills, or capital. The rest crowd as best they can into the ashwaiyat, or slums, that girdle the big cities. Munira-West (MW), near the capital of Cairo, is a case in point. 2 It is one of the four hundred slum areas where one out of every five Egyptians now resides. Nearly a million people live in MW alone, even though the entire neighborhood covers less than one square kilometer. Until 1992, MW did not appear on any official map, and had neither running water nor a single police station, school, or hospital, although the situation has improved somewhat since then. Poor as it was in necessities and amenities alike, MW did have a wealth of stresses and strains, including rampant vice, escalating criminal violence, and flourishing religious militancy. The Egyptian state discovered MW in December 1992, and tried to bring it under control. It took 15,000 troops and six weeks of bloody confrontation before the task was even partly done.

Munira-West is only five kilometers from the center of Cairo, and less than two kilometers from the wealthy and elegant suburb of Zamalek. The contrast between MW and Zamalek is stark. The latter has only a tenth of MW’s population but covers an area ten times as great. The disparity in per-capita income is also huge: $15,000 per year in Zamalek versus $150 in Munira-West. These two...

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pp. 125-135
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