Monday, January 31, 2011

Rich-poor chasm...and the Egyptian uprising

By David Kirkpatrick and Mona El-Naggar, New York Times, January 30, 2011
The widening chasm between rich and poor in Cairo has been one of the conspicuous aspects of city life over the last decade — and especially the last five years. Though there were always extremes of wealth and poverty here, until recently the rich lived more or less among the poor — in grander apartments or more spacious apartments but mixed together in the same city.

But as the Mubarak administration has taken steps toward privatizing more government businesses, kicking off an economic boom for some, rich Egyptians have fled the city. They have flocked to gated communities full of big American-style homes around country clubs, and the remoteness of their lives from those of average Egyptians has become starkly visible.
The new rich communities and older affluent enclaves closer to the city were seized with fear over the weekend after a rash of looting Friday night.
At the ravaged City Centre mall, looters had pulled bank A.T.M.’s from the walls, smashed in skylights and carted away televisions, and on Sunday a small crowd was inspecting the damage and debating the causes.
A group of men standing guard said they had watched the police abandon the mall as if on command Friday at 11 p.m., and the first looters arrived in cars shortly after. They argued that the government had tried to create the impression of chaos. Others blamed hordes who poured in from impoverished neighborhoods, or Bedouins who they said came in from the desert.
Ayman Adbel Al, 43, a civil engineer inspecting the damage with his two teenage sons, blamed Mr. Mubarak, arguing that he had allowed the growing class divisions in Egyptian society to build up for years until they exploded last week. “I can say that I am well off, but I hate it, too. It is not humanitarian,” he said, showing a picture of himself with his family at the protests Saturday. The only people who wanted Mr. Mubarak to stay in power, he argued, were rich people “afraid for their money.”
Everone, it seems, is looking for the root causes of the uprising in the Middle East. Could the growing chasm between the have's and the have-not's be a signficant factor in this development?
And if it is, what geographic boundaries will contain the profound and legitimate resentment of the poor in every country, against the growing affluence and influence of the so-called rich? Likely none.
There is a growing perception, based on the events of the last decade-plus, that governments, including those in democratic countries, have growing increasingly tone-deaf to the cries for justice, equality and legitimate rewards for legitimate hard work.
In Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, just this past week, we saw a street protest, (of a few hundred people) against the former Stelco (now USSteel, Canada) where current employees were protesting the removal of pension benefits from retired workers and their spouses, and the refusal to continue pensions for new hires.
One current employee of twelve years, interviewed by CBC television, commented that his now-deceased father had worked for 37 years for Stelco and his pension was about to be rescinded from his elderly mother. He was marching to protest that decision.
The economic conditions of that family, while not nearly as dire as the conditions under which many Egyptians are living, are becoming increasingly desperate. Consequently, the decisions of the rich and powerful, often not in the interests of the poor and the voiceless, are pressing in on ordinary people everywhere, often with impunity.
In England, too, we see growing protests among the university students against steep rises in tuition fees, for students in the middle of their college years.
Many states in the U.S. verge on bankruptcy, and the spectre of major cuts to social programs is looming on the horizon, programs needed for survival of many of their people.
Meanwhile, the percentage of the national incomes of many countries held by a decreasing percentage of the people continues to grow. That is neither sustainable nor just, and it could be only a matter of time before the poor everywhere, linked to the hungry, the sick and the jobless (of all faiths, and of no faiths) draw their own line in the sand, albeit under slightly different conditions in each country.
We in the west are not immune from the growing disparity between those who have and those who, increasingly, have much less than previously, and our political leaders, at least those who seem to favour their wealthy supporters over their masses, will become the targets for legitimate protest, regardless of whether there is a 'democratic' government or not. The ballot box may become the first line of protest for some countries, while the street will become the stage for other expressions of legitimate political power.

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