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Egypt's political elites and their estrangement from the poor

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Nasser Nasser/AP

(Read caption) An Egyptian man walks by a mural depicting ousted president Hosni Mubarak, right, and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, left, with Arabic that reads 'before the revolution, let them be amused, after the revolution, let them be paralyzed,' on a wall in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Tuesday.

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Egypt's political elite continue to fail their people. They are failing to empathize, they are failing to speak to the public in a way that makes them feel they're being listened to, and they're failing to craft approaches to turn around a dangerously listing economy.

Egypt's current economic and social problems have no easy fixes, and would confound an all-star team of political leaders. But compounding those problems is the fact that President Mohamed Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood, and the security forces – who are seen by the public as dangers to be avoided rather than keepers of the peace – are out of touch with the struggles of the nation's poor.

Their attitude veers between amusement, disgust, and contempt, and all of them were on display when, while answering questions in parliament earlier this month, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil was asked about Hamada Saber, a middle-aged laborer who was caught on film being stripped naked, beaten, and dragged through the street by police in front of the presidential palace on Feb. 1. Mr. Qandil managed, in very few words, to unintentionally outline how estranged Egypt's leadership is from the working classes when he launched into a set of unfocused comments that seemed to place responsibility for poverty squarely on the backs of the poor while sidestepping the issue of police mistreatment of Mr. Saber.

The poor, who may not be well-educated but aren't stupid, are well-aware of this contempt among the political elite – one reason so many average Egyptians say that what they wanted out of the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak was more "dignity." So far they're not getting it.

The police abuse, broadcast live and replayed dozens of times in the coming days, electrified the country as a clear symbol of a thuggish government whose behavior, in its interactions with average folk, remains unchanged since the revolution. Saber was originally threatened and warned to lie about this assault (seeking to pin the blame on protesters) – something straight out of the Mubarak era.

A few days later, Qandil, a President Mohamed Morsi appointee, was asked by a reporter in a televised meeting about the attack. First he said that while he doesn't know Saber, that "I'm 90 percent sure he doesn't pay his electricity bill." Whether Saber is too poor to pay his electric bills or not, it hardly seems relevant to his own treatment.

Qandil then quickly shifts to breast-feeding and sanitation (Qandil is a former minister of water resources, which means he bears some responsibility for the lack of clean drinking water and effective sewage systems in many parts of the country) and blamed the frequency of diarrhea among infants in Beni Suef, a city south of Cairo, on the poor hygiene of their mothers.

Below is a videotape of Qandil's original comments with English subtitles. He says, "In my work, I used to go to the countryside, so I've seen in the villages of Beni Suef families. I mean, there are villages in Egypt, villages in Egypt, you're disturbed that he has a power bill he doesn't even pay to start with but he, I'm certain.. there are villages in Egypt, in the 21st century, the children get diarrhea... you know, an infant because his mother out of ignorance breast feeds him... she is so ignorant that she is not capable of maintaining the cleanliness of her breasts, so the child gets diarrhea." 

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At the end of last week Qandil issued a classic non-apology apology, saying he regretted that his videotaped comments were "falsely portrayed" by the press.

Every country has politicians who make cloddish, tone-deaf statements. But in Egypt it seems to be more the norm than the exception. On Feb. 3, the government issued a report on rampant food inflation in which it urged citizens not to overeat. On Feb. 10, Minister of Supply and Internal Trade Bassem Auda held a press conference announcing plans to ration subsidized bread to three loaves per person (an Egyptian loaf is a flatbread, much like a pita).

The country is the largest importer of wheat in the world, and the cost of those imports have soared as the value of the Egyptian pound has fallen (a poor harvest due to drought in much of the world last year also isn't helping matters). The poor, defined as those with an average household income of less than $200 a month, rely on that subsidized bread.

And when I met in January with a member of Egypt's Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, he said they were considering a law to cap the salaries of government workers at 50,000 pounds a month ($7,600) and that he was seeking an amendment to increase the upper limit to 200,000 pounds ($30,400). Then he stunned me: "You have to understand that Egypt isn't an inexpensive country like the US. That is a great salary in the US, but for us, the costs are so much higher."

And it isn't just within Egypt that elites don't seem to get it. David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post, wrote a piece on Feb. 15 comparing Egypt's ultras – the soccer hooligans who take their names from Italian supporters organizations – to the thugs in A Clockwork Orange. He describes Anthony Burgess grim, violent novel as "an eerily prescient guide to the youth gangs that are wild in the streets of Egypt and other countries. What are these hooligans telling us about the future – not just in Egypt but also in other nations where authoritarian leaders have lost their power to repress dissent by angry young men? The teenage marauders seem to have lost respect for the world of their fathers – and for the forces of social control that were woven through traditional societies such as Egypt."

Well, yes, they have lost respect for a world that's never respected them. That there is an edge of nihilism to much of the protest in Cairo these days can't be denied. But it's hard not to be sympathetic to angry, jobless young men who have been failed by their political system and their leaders for their entire lives. Go to any poor Cairo neighborhood or Egyptian town and you'll see cops soliciting bribes and unmaintained sewage systems with filth running out into the vacant lots the children play in. Wouldn't you be angry?

Ignatius warns that Egypt's "social fabric" has ripped and complains that "the kids who made the revolution refuse to settle down and take their seats."

He seems to miss the point, as do Egypt's leaders, who are the ones failing Egypt far more than dissatisfied youths. When young angry people get pushed far enough, they end up breaking things. Giving them a reason to "take their seats" is up to the government. So far, it is failing them. Again.

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