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By Selma Cook


egypt today, a growing nationEgypt is a growing developing country. It is climbing out of its third world category in terms of blooming businesses, booming satellite cities, educational opportunities, and a host of other civilized niceties. The roads are cleaner, the rubbish is collected is a more systematic way, and water and electricity cuts are rare in the wealthier parts of town.

However, this layer of mounting economic growth is rather thin and really only affects a very small percentage of the population. There are still vast areas of Cairo that live in impoverished ghetto-like conditions with poor sanitation, high illiteracy rate, and soaring unemployment. The majority of the population move on public transport which is over-crowded, unreliable, and sometimes down rate dangerous due to the neglected state of buses and ignorant drivers.

egypt todayAbout thirty-five years ago Nasr City was simply a big chunk of empty desert. Now it is a bustling thriving region with approximately 11 areas and even a new branch called ‘New Nasr City’. The growing middle class of Egypt is finding its foothold here as every available inch of land is transformed into multi-storey buildings housing family after family after family. The laws state that each building should only be five storeys high. However, a quick look will reveal many buildings more than 10 storeys and some are even higher.

 The buildings are packed together with a vast array of shops on the ground floor of many. Every area - meaning its services can be accessed in comfortable walking distance - has its own shops that are necessary for the comfort of the residents of that area. There are usually a number of small supermarkets, chemists, ironing shops with very cheap rates, bakeries, fruit and vegetable stalls, and electrical/plumbing/building supply shops. Most of these will home-deliver free of charge which is a blessing as most of the time if the shopper needed to park in order to shop, the shops would do poor business. Every building by law should have a garage where the cars of the residents of that building are kept but few have included this in the actual construction and if there is a garage it is often used to house the caretaker (bowab) and his family. If the garage law was obeyed, the parking and traffic problem would be greatly reduced.

egypt todayIn Nasr City in the last few years eleven malls have been built. A multitude of specialized shops are doing business and thriving in these malls that keep the shopping/entertainment area confined to the first three or four levels and the higher floors are sold for residential purposes. It is clear that there is sufficient money in this one area of Cairo to keep all these businesses going. This in turn creates jobs for the lower classes like shop assistants, waiters, cooks, cleaners, and security guards.

This ever-increasing economic wealth is felt mainly by the middle-class. The poorer classes remain as they have been for ages; scrambling to survive. In the main streets of Nasr City, particularly Makrum Abeed Street, you will still see a host of male workers in the meridian strip waiting for someone to come along and take them for a day’s work. These men are illiterate and you might find one who is qualified to make a hole in a wall, another one who can work with a construction team, and many who can only carry things. You will never find a woman waiting there looking for work; this is the men’s domain.

nasr cityThese workers have developed their own culture and form groups and share tea and tip-offs. The wives of such workers are most commonly employed as cleaning ladies in homes. In times gone by it was a mark of the higher classes to have a cleaning lady come in once or twice a week to clean but now with the increase in working mothers and higher incomes this is no longer a luxury but a necessity of life. These cleaning ladies can easily earn more money than their husbands which in turn is often the root cause of many a troubled home.

Most buildings in inner Nasr City have a ‘bowab’; a man and his family from the country-side who live in impoverished conditions mostly in the garage, basement of the building, or a hut next to it. The bowab and his family serve the people of the building. The whole family will arise very early in the morning to wash the cars and do any shopping for the families. Even the older children are expected to run errands and be at the beck and call of the residents of the building 24 hours a day. There is a lot of competition for country people to get residence as a bowab, and once in place the bowab family is not easily removed. Each flat in the building will pay the bowab a specified amount every month and according to the amount of flats in the building this can add up to quite a substantial sum. Along with this the bowab’s family members, mostly the wife, get paid for cleaning flats and the children get small tips for running errands. But this is not automatic and some more miserly residents may not pay the bowab and his family anything for their services except for the monthly rate. The monthly rate paid by an affluent family can be as little as 20 Egyptian pounds a month. To understand the significance of this amount, it costs 20 LE to see a film in the cinema.

More and more people from the countryside are moving to Cairo in a bid to find work. There are extremely high rates of unemployment in the villages and the big city is their only real hope of having a brighter future. It is usual these days to find bowabs sending their children to school and keeping them at school until they obtain a university degree as this is their ticket out of poverty.


One particular cleaning lady I met has three children. Her husband left her some time ago to raise her children alone. Now her son has a steady job in security and her daughter has nearly finished a university degree while the younger child is still in school. These children were raised on the money earned by the mother as a cleaning lady. There are many cases where poor families pool their resources and mutually support each other out of crisis situations. On the other hand, there are also cases of domestic violence where the patriarchal society of Egypt is still clearly present. The recent changes in law allowing khula (divorce at the instigation of the wife) has allowed many women to free themselves from oppressive husbands.

egypt todayMany middle class women work in order to send their children to ‘better’ schools. Fluency in English is vital for young people to secure good jobs for themselves. There is a growing amount of language schools that range in price for 4-5000 Egyptian pounds a year up to 15,000 Egyptian pounds. These language schools teach all subjects in English except Arabic and Religion. It is not often that students emerge from these schools with solid useful skills, as the education is rote learning and the lessons are in English but are often taught in the colloquial language.

Only the higher classes have access to international schools which take a holistic approach to education and all subjects are taught in English. However, these schools vary in price from 20,000 to 80,000 Egyptian pounds a year. With an average of three children a family this is impossible except for the very rich.

As incomes rise, businesses open, malls are built, and new international schools are opened every year, sections of the Egyptian society are becoming more and more affluent. The poorer people are still struggling to survive but see education as a means to economic growth. However, that only applies to financial security. Many opportunities to develop and get ‘good’ jobs in government departments depend on ‘who’ you know. But at the same time, in order for a person to be accepted into the ‘society’ of the wealthy or the would-be wealthy, the person must come from a professional background. For example, a person with money whose parents were cleaners or workers would never be accepted into the private sporting clubs and would never become officers in the police or army. The poor who are emerging from poverty still have a long way to go.