CSM: A widening class divide in Egypt

Saul Thomas stthomas at SPAMmidway.uchicago.edu
Sat Jun 3 21:54:15 MDT 2000

Christian Science Monitor


A widening class divide in Egypt

A surge in luxury communities outside chaotic Cairo reflects the huge gap
between rich and poor.

Sarah Gauch

Special to The Christian Science Monitor


If luxury-loving Cleopatra were around today, chances are you'd spot her
with Mark Antony at the Soleimania Golf Village, a half-hour drive from Cairo.

This 2,000-acre gated community is a luxurious oasis. Here, manicured lawns
separate palm- tree-lined avenues from rows of hulking villas. The 72
artificial lakes host pink flamingos imported from Florida, and trout from
southern France. Such extravagance might sound like Arcadia in an Egypt
typically associated with the Indiana Jones imagery of crowds pushing
through dusty city streets.

But these opulent living spaces reflect the emergence of modern-day
Pharaohs - a new class of very rich Egyptians who profited from free-market
reforms introduced in the '70s. And the result is a yawning gap between the
rich and poor. This financial disparity, analysts warn, could engulf
Egyptian society in escalating class tensions.

According to leading sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, these new luxury
developments "will alienate a sizable section of the Egyptian society from
the government and from the upper class." And he adds, "this may, if not
rectified, give rise again to a new wave of Islamic activism." The most
recent of these waves was in the early '90s, when Islamic militants killed
politicians, police, and civilians during their campaign to overthrow the
Egyptian government and create a pure Islamic state.

This trend toward decreased wealth distribution has also alarmed urban
planners and social scientists. They argue that too much government land
and resources are being devoted to housing for the population's wealthy,
while the middle and poor classes suffer a severe housing shortage.

Observers also question the wisdom of "frivolously" utilizing meager water
resources - similar to the objections you might hear over adding yet
another chichi golf resort to a desert town like Scottsdale, Ariz. "Scarce
resources were directed to build these upper-class developments and they
are mostly second and third homes for the wealthy," says Sayed Ettouney, an
urban planner and architect.

It is estimated that only 10 percent of Egypt's population can afford to
live in the gated communities. The 40 percent in the middle class struggle
to afford a desert home, while the 50 which make up the poor population
can't even dream about it.

But even at nearly a million dollars, some consider these mansions a good
buy. Egypt's population of 64 million is growing by 1 million every year.
Conditions in Cairo and beyond are deteriorating, jammed with people and
cars - and often covered by a gray cloud of choking smoke. On average,
about two people live in a single Cairo room. Those who can afford it, see
the gated communities as a ticket to fresh air and a better quality of
life. They also get a choice of recreational activities including golf,
tennis, swimming, horse-back riding, squash, bowling, and even an amusement

More amenities are in the works at Soleimania. With another 100 residents
set to move in this August - ultimately a community of 10,000 - Soleimania
has plans to build schools from kindergarten to high school, a medical
clinic, and supermarkets.

Meanwhile, a lack of housing and spiralling real-estate costs have forced
many lower- or middle-class young couples to postpone marriage for years,
because they can't afford to buy a home (usually a de facto requirement for
marriage here). They also say that, because of a lack of services in the
desert, most owners are not relocating to these new homes, but merely using
them as weekends villas.

Relocating people out of the overcrowded capital and Nile Valley is the
government's main goal of desert development. In this ancient land, 95
percent of the population is shoehorned into 5 percent of Egypt's landmass
- on the narrow, fertile strip that runs along the Nile River.

Supporters of the villa complexes also contend that, since historically in
Egypt the rich settle first and then the poor follow, this is a good way to
develop the desert. "The poor migrate after the rich, because the rich need
the poor to serve them," says architect Hisham Bahgat.

But as the debate continues, some see an even bleaker scenario for the
future. As has happened in many American cities, they say the wealthy and
their finances could eventually abandon Cairo - a crowded, but still
amazing city with priceless monuments, Medieval mosques, and stately
19th-century mansions - leaving the capital to a future of economic
depression, decay, and crime.

The government argues that the posh communities help to stimulate other
economic sectors like construction and, hence, generate jobs. Officials
also claim that government revenues from these luxury developments
subsidize low-income housing projects and that their golf courses attract
tourism dollars to Egypt.

At the same time, government officials also emphasize that, despite the
growth of these new villa complexes, their first priority is still to house
the poor. "The Ministry of Housing ... is committed to providing housing
for low-income groups. For the other income groups we provide
infrastructure and facilitate accessibility to the new community through
roads," says Hussein Mahmoud El-Gibaaly of the Ministry of Housing.

Urban planners say a steady flight to fresh air will continue. And with
names like Beverly Hills, Dreamland, and Palm Hills, the gated communities
meet the wishes of wealthy Egyptians to replicate the American dream. "It's
the ambition of any American family to have their own home with a backyard,
a garage and a little pool," says Ziad El Ghazzawi, a resident of
Soleimania Golf Village.

"Egyptians see this on TV or when they travel ... better than living in a

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