The Other Egypt

Two Mohammeds, the breadman and his young assistant (Trudy Rubin / Inquirer Staff)

Mohammed Goma, the man in this photo, who delivers fresh bread from a bakery, earns 30 Egyptian pounds a day, the equivalent of five dollars. Mohammed, The 15-year-old next to him, who dropped out of school in sixth grade, works 12 hours a day for 25 pounds. His 11-year-old brother, Samer, who never went to school at all (see second photo), earns 15 pounds a day for his 12 hours. Their father is a farmer outside Cairo and has sent them to the city to work.

This is the other Egypt.

With all the excitement over Egypt’s political revolution, few people are talking about the economic crisis in the country. Tourism has tanked since the uprising – even though Cairo is perfectly safe now – and there are strikes all over the country as frustrated workers try to be heard and vent their anger at the corruption that flourished under Hosni Mubarak.

When I was standing in Tahrir Square last week, a professor of nursing came up and told me she only makes the equivalent of $200 a month, after 18 years of teaching, while others who paid large bribes or had good connections made far more at a much younger age. Meantime, the cronies of Mubarak’s son Gamal became fabulously rich.

At this point, the country can’t afford to raise the minimum wage to what striking workers are demanding. And unless education standards are raised, and stability restored, it can’t attract the jobs it needs for a frustrated generation of youths. “I’m frightened about whether we have the resources to buy time,” says Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to Washington, who is now Dean of the School of Public Affairs at the American University of Cairo. “We will grow only 2 per cent this year because of events. And we need 8 per cent growth for at least 7-8 years just to meet new employment demands and make up for lost time.”

The test of the new Egypt will be whether, ten years down the line, Mohammed and Samer are still in school and have the prospect of getting decent jobs after the leave.