Egypt Doesn't Need Democracy. It Needs a Living Wage.

Amin Abu Hashem has lived in Egypt all his life, and he thinks the media has fundamentally misunderstood what is going on there. “What we ultimately want is food in our bellies and money in our pockets," Abu Hashem said. “The economy is the main reason people were unhappy with Morsi’s rule.”

Abu Hashem recalled a chants that echoed in the streets during the last election: “bread, freedom, social justice.” He said that former President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s recently deposed leader, had failed at following through on his promises. “The everyday man on the street will not give Morsi any credit,” Abu Hashem said.

Egypt's GDP growth remains slow at 2.2%, as investments continue to decline and an alarming number of people (13%, officially) remain unemployed. Another study shows that a quarter of Egyptians are impoverished, making less than the equivalent of $500 a year.

A push by Egyptians for an increased minimum wage has received minimal news coverage. Under Mubarak, Egyptians struggled for decades to establish a livable minimum wage. Since 2011, the minimum wage has stayed stagnant at a mere 35 Egyptian pounds, about $6, per month.

After the revolution in 2011, which resulted in the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians saw a modest increase in the minimum wage, but grew increasingly frustrated over the policy's slow implementation, and vague legal language about who would benefit. Even once it was established, the new minimum wage did not go far enough for many Egyptians. 

Nearly 14 million Egyptians experienced food insecurity in 2011, and that number is likely to go up as the economy continues to decline. About 66% of surveyed households' expenditures went toward food costs, and nearly 94% of households surveyed reported static incomes.

Egyptians are frustrated that their conditions have not significantly improved since the revolution. Abu Hashem told me that frequent blackouts leave millions of Egyptians without lights or cool air in the summer months. “I sleep in 110 degree heat, and I wake up mad,” he said. And while Abu Hashem considered this a relatively minor complaint, he pointed out that, “small things add up that make your day progressively worse.”

Abu Hashem said another important issue in Egypt is wasta, a colloquial term for corruption which means "friend of mine." Abu Hashem said that if you have money and the right connections, you could get out of anything — including Egypt's mandatory military service. Abu Hashem said that while Egyptians have a lot of freedoms compared to, say, Iranians, Egyptians want fairness under the law and a level playing field.

Abu Hashem said he believes that while Egypt is slowly moving towards democracy, it cannot do so overnight—and that, meanwhile, the media paints a picture of naïve Egyptians who want instantaneous democracy. But democracy isn't Egyptians' immediate concern—in a Pew research study, three in four Egyptians said the economy is deteriorating, as are law and order and morality.   

According to Abu Hashem, the deposition of Morsi was democratic because more people signed a petition asking for him to step down than had originally voted for him. From 2012 to 2013 alone, Egyptian satisfaction with how things are going in the country plummeted by nearly 25%, while the number of Egyptians who have a negative view of Egypt’s economic prosperity has surged over 20%.

It’s true that Egyptians want elections, accountability, fairness under the law, and eventually, a stable, secular democracy. But Egyptians want jobs and living wages even more. Egypt is only revolutionary because people don't make enough money to buy food. 

This article originally appeared on Generation Progress. 

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Amir Salehzadeh

Amir Salehzadeh is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley studying Political Science. Amir has experience working for the local, state (CA), and federal level of government. He is involved with grassroots, community, and campaign organizing. He is particularly interested in foreign relations with the Middle East.

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