Egypt's Silent, Poor Majority

On the margins during the revolution, the millions of impoverished Egyptians could play a larger role in the country's future

CAIRO, Egypt -- For months, Cairo's Tahrir Square has periodically swelled with thousands of activists frustrated by the ruling military junta's slow pace of institutional reform. Yet this nation of 80 million includes plenty of people who despised the corrupt and autocratic government of former President Hosni Mubarak -- but who hardly sympathize with the revolutionary methods or aspirations of the mostly young, mostly urban, and mostly left-wing protest movement. These Egyptians could swing -- or outright dominate -- parliamentary and presidential elections, when (or if) they happen, and could be instrumental in shaping Egypt's future.

The inhabitants of the Bab al-Nasr cemetery are part of this silent majority. They live across from the imposing and ancient northern gates of Cairo's old city, in a tin and plywood shantytown hidden behind a ten-foot wall constructed during the waning years of the Mubarak government. Bab al-Nasr's residents are some of the poorest and most socially isolated people in the country. Shaaban, a gaunt 62-year-old man who has lived in the Bab al-Nasr cemetery his entire life, told me he barely ever leaves his neighborhood. "There's nothing for me to do out there," he says.

The outside world doesn't seem to care much about Bab al-Nasr. The government does not provide the area with electricity; anyone who wants power must steal it. Karima, a woman in her early 30s, said she wants to move out, but that her application for government housing has repeatedly been rejected. "It is haram to be living on graves," she said, "but we have no choice."

The charitable sector isn't concerned about the cemetery-dwellers either. Karima said that the only assistance she receives is an annual payout from Al Azhar University during Ramadan that's equal to about four dollars. Many residents make money from digging or maintaining graves; during a good week, they can fetch around 50 Egyptian pounds, or seven dollars.

The contrast between the Bab al-Nasr and Shaaban's "out there" is stark. The cemetery is a sprawling, sandy expanse of unornamented plaster graves and rickety wooden mausoleums. Unlike the famed City of the Dead to the south, the Bab al-Nasr contains almost nothing of historical or architectural interest. There is little reason for outsiders to go there. Shaaban says that around 4,000 people live in the cemetery, but its interior is overpoweringly silent and empty, especially in comparison to the chaos of downtown Cairo. The cemetery is an atypical, even apolitical place "Mubarak never did any good for me, but he never did anything bad to me either," Shaaban said. Bab al-Nasr might be literally walled off from the outside world, but the struggles and frustrations of its residents hint at the social and political forces that could define post-Mubarak Egypt.

Saeed, a grave keeper who grew up in the Bab al-Nasr cemetery, said that the residents' feeling of social alienation stunts the development of a political consciousness there. "To a certain extent, people here are isolated from outside events," he said. "Even if they hear about something like the [January 25th protests] they feel removed from it. They are concerned with day-to-day survival. Politics seems totally disconnected from that."

In a democratic country, the political process can be a vehicle for solving the problems that afflict a place like the Bab al-Nasr cemetery. But, in Egypt, politics have long been synonymous with self-interest and greed. According to Adel Ramadan of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, only five percent of representatives in the last parliament were professional politicians; the rest were either small-scale rent seekers or insiders connected to the ruling National Democratic Party's extensive patronage network.

It's extremely difficult to know what Egypt's silent majority believes. They are physically disparate, psychologically diverse, and politically without organization. But, based on what I saw in Bab al-Nasr and elsewhere in the country, decades of corrupt and autocratic governance have left many Egyptians cynical about the potential for politics to actually improve their lives. Among Egypt's extreme poor, this perceived lack of a political outlet can have violent consequences. In 2008, Egypt saw deadly riots over the rising price of food staples and the government's failure to sufficiently subsidize their cost. Since then, the high price of food has hardly become any less of a hardship, particularly in light of the 4.2 percent contraction in GDP during the quarter following Mubarak's ouster. When asked to identify one thing the government could do to help the people of Bab al-Nasr, Ahmed, another former resident, talked about food subsidies. "The government should start with bringing down the inflated price of food," he said. Karima agreed. She said she hopes that the government "moves us into government houses and moderates the price of food."

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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