Cairo has changed a lot. Before Arab Spring, the streets were cacophonous but now it is common to witness energized youth populations as they find their collective voice. Early this morning, I looked down from the balcony of my hotel room to see a handful of young Egyptians carrying banners and chanting slogans as they walked past – not sure what they were yelling, though!
“Oh yes, the freedom that we now have was never experienced by our last two generations, and we don’t know what to do with it!” Delilah (let’s give her that name) said to me. Delilah is the Managing Partner of a consulting firm in Cairo. As her chauffeur slowly weaved through the heavy traffic (which has certainly worsened), Delilah and I discussed the transformations in Egypt during the last year as we comfortably sat in the back seat of her Prado.
“Now I am not against the revolution, believe me….but it has brought about a lot of problems….and it is only going to get worse before it gets better,” she sighed. “Any transition requires that, I guess! You see, whatever anyone says, at least there was a system before. People knew how to work around it and get work done. Now, though there is no more controlling force but people are not willing to provide results – whether at a public office or at a bank! Don’t they understand that I am the client when I walk into their office!?”
“Yes, the people are undergoing a lot of difficulties and the suffering of the poor will only increase.” I remarked, assuming she was sympathizing with the plight of the common man. She gave me a critical stare as if I had stated something incomprehensible. Then she clarified.
“In Egypt we have a strong informal support system. Other than the regular zakat, we have a network that is not accounted for. Whether it is someone we know, like our servants or their extended families or someone we just hear of – we make sure their needs are met. We even have a national food bank which distributes food in packs daily to anyone in need – no one dies of hunger in this country. Don’t you see?” she asked as she pointed out of the SUV’s window, “Life goes on as usual. The traders have their customers as always; any market you go to, even someone who seems poor is buying loads of grocery. God knows where the cash comes from but they do have it.”
“So you mean the informal sector of the economy is not impacted at all?” I asked.
“Heck, no! What do they have to lose?” she yelled. “You see, there are even more traders without permits on the streets. The police are not there to hassle them. The police force of one million are at home saying they are all depressed while they still receive their salaries – they miss their regular kickbacks for sure. The good thing about this country is that without any police on the street, the crime rate hasn’t shot up. There have been only two bank robberies in Cairo in the last year and those also very amateurish. Don’t you have bank robberies in the US all year round?”
“So if not the informal sector, is the formal sector of the economy impacted?” I was curious to hear her views.
Delilah was being fairly patient with me, even though she obviously thought that I had no understanding of the situation. “I’ll explain to you. You see, when my partner and I set up our firm, we had decades of experience in our fields. I had even spent time in a UN agency, NGO’s and in the private sector with tons of experience before switching to the consulting business. I realize I was a bit late in setting up my own practice but as soon as we started, we immediately received contracts that kept us busy – all was going well. Then the revolution came about – only God knows where the youth obtained their energy from.”
“Now, no one is willing to invest in Egypt any more, no bilateral long term projects are coming about, even the multilateral organizations stop at short term contracts for market analysis and are not willing to talk beyond. We had also been at close terms with the CEO’s of several large firms and were selling them our services to help increase their businesses. Our proposals are stranded now that they are all gone.”
“What do you mean?” I questioned.
“Well, the top management of the major enterprises evacuated the country as the revolution started and are now reluctant to return. They fear that they will be tried in court or will not be allowed to leave again. So there are no decision makers. Doesn’t THAT put the economy at risk!?” Delilah concluded as we reached our destination.
I held back my smile thinking that from her perspective the true victims of the revolution are the people of the rich upper class who have lost their special privileges, while Delilah’s chauffer opened the Prado’s door for us to enter the Nile City North Tower.