Population: 81.7 million
Gross domestic product: $127.9 billion
Economic growth rate: 7.2% annually
Jobs: Agriculture 32%
Unemployment rate: 10.1%
Population belove poverty line: 20%
Agricultural products: Cotton, rice, corn, wheat, beans, fruits, vegetables; cattle, water buffalo, sheep, goats
Currency: Egyptian pound
Source: CIA World Fact Book
The Egyptian populous divided into four cultural groups consisting of Copts, Bedouins, Nubians and Egyptian peasants, or fallahin. Upon closer examination, fallahins are presented basically as farmers living in villages. Perhaps this is a correct and traditional definition of the word fallahin, but it was immediately apparent that this division of cultural groups was out of touch with reality, and showed no feeling for Egypt's true flavor.
Egypt is actually a wonderful and delightful mixture of traditions, with a socioeconomic structure which allows, more and more, a gradient of classes. But one must look, and feel with the heart in order to touch this essence of Egypt.
A considerable amount, if not majority, of Egypt's population now live in larger cities, mostly Cairo and Alexandria. In fact, these two cities dominate the vision of most foreigners. They are vitally important to Egypt's culture, but one should not neglect the many other moderately sized cities. And within these cities there is a virtual kaleidoscope of social stratas. There are doubtless the poor, the recent fallahins come to the city, and the lower echelons of what we will call the commercial or merchant class. They are evident, and plentiful. But these businessmen merge into the middle class, and then upper middle class. More than a few become wealthy.
The travel books seem to neglect this broad range of Egyptian business men. Some come from families who probably have ancient ties with trading, but others are those fallahins who have found what they came looking for in the city. Perhaps the poorest of these merchants, those who sell produce or bean meals in the streets might answer to the term fallahin, but I doubt that most would fall within any of the traditional cultural groups. They have a million faces, and also as many professions and trades. They make gold jewelry and copper pots, rugs, they paint, build buildings and fine pottery. They sell groceries at the corner market. They trade in tractors and water pumps, they are butchers and bakers, taxi drivers, and secretaries. And these days many of these people are simply Egyptian, not Coptic, not Nubian, not Bedouin and certainly not the traditional Fallahin.
But what is equally missing from most travel guide descriptions of the Egyptian culture is a real feeling for the beauty of these marvelous cities. Here, one will find teenagers at McDonalds or Pizza Inn and making the local drag in their small Fiats. There, one will see brightly lit streets with multicolored lights strung from the buildings so as to celebrate a birthday or a wedding. One will find a continuous stream of blaring horns, as a population perpetually late for some meeting scrambles about the city. But one may admire this madness from an armchair next to his favorite coffee shop, where he may be overcome by a feeling of tranquillity. It is often a culture of the back streets of small neighborhoods, particularly at night, where the television has not dispatched social accord. The residents of these small neighborhoods within these monstrous cities know each other well, and look out for one another.
It is also a moral culture, which these authors admire whole heartedly. In a city the size of Cairo, there is virtually no crime rate. Many westerners believe that this is due to stiff punishment, but the real reason is the population's loyalty to their religious faith. The virtual absence of drinking and drugs among the local population, prohibited by their Islamic law and enforced by their own piety, surely has much to do with this. When one ceases judging cultures purely from the standpoint of material wealth, and begins to see the humanistic success of the Egyptian culture, it is difficult for a person of any religious persuasion not to develop a deep respect for Islam.
The rural peasants provided the pharaohs with both the manpower to build their majestic monuments and the food to support the workers. Even today, the fallahin wrest two or three crops from their tiny fields in a futile attempt to feed Egypt's ever-expanding population. These farmers live in small villages, often settled by their Pharaonic ancestors, scattered along the Nile.
Most of the inhabitants live in mud-brick homes, their thick walls insulating against the afternoon heat. Flat roofs, exposed to the northern evening breezes, serve as cool sleeping quarters as well as storage areas. Villagers plaster the outer walls and often trim them in blue, a color they believe wards off the evil eye. As a man becomes richer, he can add a second story to his house perhaps for his married son. Those villagers who have made the journey to Mecca paint the legend of their trip on the outer walls of their homes. Such hajj houses, along with the mosques, are the most distinguished buildings in a village.
Some villagers build ornate pigeon coops close to their homes, using the birds as food and their droppings to fertilize crops. Many houses still have dirt floors and lack electricity or running water; women with jars balanced on their heads make the trek to the community well, and children with donkeys haul the precious liquid in jerry cans.
All this said, government sponsored building programs have also brought newer style residences and utilities to some villages, particularly those outside the Nile Valley in the Oases and the Red Sea coastal areas.
Egyptians dote on their children, who as they grow up quickly, take on adult duties. The younger ones start by herding sheep and goats. When the boys reach nine or 10, they begin learning how to farm the land that will eventually be theirs. Young girls feed chickens, milk goats and water buffalo (gamoosa), make the dung patties used for fuel, and fetch water. At an early age, they learn to carry loads on their heads; starting with lightweight items such as bread loaves, they graduate to laundry, and then to large clay water jars. Their work gives them a grace of carriage that remains with them throughout their lives.
In Egyptian extended families, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all feel clan obligations, and these ties unite them in good times and bad. If an individual's crops fail, all relatives contribute from their own supplies. If an animal is fatally injured, the fallahin will slaughter it and each family within the clan will buy a portion, thus sharing the meat and contributing to the cost of replacing the animal. The clan elders arbitrate disagreements, even those between husbands and wives, and give opinions that range from farming techniques to religious obligations.
Outside her home, a married woman traditionally wears a black outer dress over her brightly colored housedress and covers her hair with a long veil, which often sweeps the ground behind her. She wears her dowry of gold necklaces and silver bracelets and anklets, insurance against poverty if her husband divorces her or she becomes widowed. Her husband dresses in a long robe (galabayya), cotton in summer and wool in winter. He often covers his head with a scarf wound like a turban and in the winter adds a wool jacket. The robes of both sexes cover the entire body, but their looseness allows a cooling circulation of air and serves as insulation. Although the black garments of the women heat up slightly quicker than the paler galabayyas, both, contrary to popular belief, maintain about the same temperature.
At the end of the working day, rural Egyptians return to their villages, the fallahin leading his water buffalo or riding his donkey. A peaceful quiet settles over the mud-brick houses as families gather for their evening meal. Village women once spent much of their lives cooking, but today, they are equal partners in relationships and take a growing and active role in society. They bake their aysh (bread) in clay ovens of ancient pattern, making both an unleavened type and aysh shams (sun bread), which they set in the sun to rise. The main meal consist of rice, ful beans, and vegetables. For special occasions (if meat is available), they will fix fattah, a dish with layers of bread, rice, and meat seasoned with vinegar and garlic and garnished with yogurt and nuts. The fallahin eat with bread rather than knives and forks, tearing the round loaf into finger-sized portions and dipping them into the serving dishes.
Wandering throughout Egypt's deserts, Bedouin nomads continually search for fresh grazing for their camels and goats and water for their families. They don't wander aimlessly, but return annually to various locations in their territory where the land and water can sustain them for the season. Little in the desert escapes the Bedouin's eye. He knows where and when he can find water and whether it's just brackish or toxic; shrubs tell him when it last rained and how much. Signs left in the sand proclaim who has been there before him, when, the directions from which they came and departed, the size of their flocks, and perhaps even the ages of their camels. Bedouins navigate by the stars, familiar landmarks, and stone markers left on a previous trek. They travel light, leaving caches hanging in trees. Other travelers, if in need, are welcome to the food and water but are bound not to touch the remaining articles.
The Bedouin dresses for the desert, his layered and flowing robes absorbing the sun's hot rays while allowing cooling breezes to circulate. He winds a cloth around his head and neck to retard moisture loss that can lead to heat stroke and to shield his face against the harsh, dry sand. Women wear black dresses and head covers embroidered in tiny cross-stitch designs: blue for unmarried women, red for married. They cover their faces with a veil highlighted in the same stitches and often decorated with shells and coins.
Bedouin live in tents of goat and camel hair panels that the women have woven on their narrow ground looms and stitched together. When the tribe moves, the Bedouin wife is in charge of dismantling the tent, packing it on the camels, and reassembling it a the new site. She can roll up the sides so that the cool breeze enters, or stake them down, making it secure in a sand storm. In case of divorce, the tent belongs to the woman, while the man takes his domestic animals and leaves.
The Bedouin band into small, tightly knit tribes, and their leaders, picked for their wisdom and judgment, retain their positions by finesse and largesse, for their proud Bedouin brethren would find direct commands insulting. To the Bedouin, hospitality is mandatory, and guests are welcomed to a tent for three days and three nights. The teapot or coffee pot is always on for either kinsman or stranger. In exchange, the host expects conversation, for the Bedouin thus keeps abreast of the news.
If water is far away, the men and boys make the trip with camels, bringing it back in goatskins. They also go into the nearest town to exchange news and barter, trading rugs, cheese, milk, goats, and camels for cloth, jewelry, rifles, flour, rice, tea, sugar, and coffee.
Modern inroads into the desert are changing the Bedouin's life. Over the past, some rulers of Egypt have provided farm land to the Bedouin, and encouraged their settlement. Many families have settled, building houses, and the handmade tents are disappearing. Trucks bring water in 100-gallon barrels and move goats to pasture. The Bedouin is investing in land and businesses, and sending his sons to school in Cairo and Alexandria and the nearby governorates, where more higher institutes and universities were set up recently. Although he still keeps himself apart from the sedentary Egyptian, his ancient desert lifestyle is vanishing; the Toyota pickup is steadily replacing the camel.
Dark-skinned Nubians inhabit the narrow valley south of Aswan. Although modern studies have been unable to establish the ancestry of the Nubian people or trace changes in the race through history, they carry predominantly Caucasian genes and appear unrelated to other Africans. These people once farmed the narrow margins of the river, planting palm groves along its edge. Hoisting triangular lateen sails above their boats, they hauled rock, transported villagers, and fished the clear, cold Nile.
A distinct group for centuries, the Nubians (called Medjy) served the pharaohs as traders and elite military forces. (Middle Kingdom models show them marching in precise rows bearing shields and bows or spears.) During the Late Period, Nubians traveled north, invading Luxor to reestablish classical Pharaonic culture.
For centuries, the Nubians have taken great pride in their unique culture, refusing to intermarry, and in spite of centuries of inbreeding, the population shows little ill effect--weak traits must have been eliminated generations ago. In modern times, their pride has led to valiant attempts to maintain their village life even when nearly all of the men worked and lived hundreds of kilometers to the north. Today, transplanted from the lands inundated by the waters of Lake Nasser, these hard-working people are attempting to revive their culture in the face of economic and social pressures.
Originally Nubian villages were closely knit, celebrating births and marriages with village-wide festivals, rituals that always included the river. The newborn child was washed in its life-giving flow, and at circumcision his foreskin was tossed as offering into the river. A bride and groom bathed separately in the fertile waters on the eve of their marriage, then again at dawn, together. After a death, at the end of mourning, the women came to the waters to wash from their faces the mud and blue dye that had been their badge of sorrow, and offer henna and perfume to the spirits of the river. Although the Nubians converted first to Christianity and then to Islam, beliefs in the water angels persist, and the people continue to petition these spirits for favors and blessings.
The Nubian lifestyle suddenly changed when the British built the first Aswan dam in 1902. Its rising forebay drowned their durra plants, choked their date palms, and swallowed their mosques and homes, forcing the people to rebuild their villages higher up the barren slopes. They attempted to cultivate the new banks of the river, but the sandy soil lacked fertile silt and production levels fell. Many of the men left their families to seek work in the towns, traveling as far as Cairo.
The dam was raised three times within 75 years, ultimately sending over 85% of the Nubian men north to find work. The women and children left behind attempted to maintain the village customs, but with husbands and fathers returning only a couple of times a year, traditional rites and festivals were often abandoned. In smaller ways, too, their lifestyle continued to change: tin pots, aluminum pans, and plastic plates replaced woven baskets, for the date palms that had supplied the fronds were now under the lake. The flat roofs, once supported by palm trunks, gave way to vaulted domes, and even dates themselves, a staple of the Nubian diet, had to be imported.
Although some villagers had earlier moved to Aswan, the High Dam forced a final exodus of the Nubians. When 50,000 trekked north, they could at last claim fertile land. Although living in an alien culture, they were no longer solely dependent on wages sent from the cities; families could bring their men home again. Thanks to government programs, the Nubians who have now settled around Aswan and Kom Ombo face a more promising future. Although many Nubian men still work in the cities, the demand for domestic help (jobs Nubians frequently filled) has nearly vanished, and they now can be found running some of the small shops ubiquitous in Egypt, driving cabs, or sailing faluccas. Others have opted for an education, and Nubians with college degrees make up part of Egypt's educated elite.
USA Today, April 30, 2008 - By David J. Lynch, USA TODAY
CAIRO — Well before 8 o'clock on a late April morning, a line of about 30 eager customers forms at a modest bakery in this working-class neighborhood. With a global food crisis roiling countries from Asia to the edge of Europe, at least 11 people have been killed recently in such lines here, struggling to get their daily bread.
But today, the queue melts away within moments. Veiled women and men in worn shirts approach a small wooden shack at the end of a narrow alley, hand over the equivalent of a few cents and leave holding a plastic bag filled with nine flat loaves of bread. Over the next half-hour, until the bakery runs out of its only product, the line waxes and wanes.
There's no panic, no desperate scrambling for sustenance — a tentative sign of success for an emergency government plan that involves dramatic increases in spending on bread subsidies and the use of Egyptian soldiers as bakers.
"Now we're able to find bread," says Dalia Hafez, 40, seated on a nearby curb in a cappuccino-colored headscarf. "Thanks God, the crisis is over."
For now, anyway. But the aftershocks from the food trauma here are only beginning to be felt. Tensions are continuing to build in this key U.S. ally, evidence that the global food crisis — the product of factors ranging from unusual weather in producing nations to increased competition for grains from biofuels programs — is now about much more than food.
"This crisis threatens not only the hungry, but also peace and stability," the head of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), Josette Sheeran, warned in a recent speech.
That's certainly true in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, recipient of $1.8 billion in annual U.S. foreign aid and a critical link in global trade sitting astride the Suez Canal. Its authoritarian government is faced with mounting labor unrest, profound public dissatisfaction over a yawning gap between rich and poor and questions over who will lead Egypt in the coming years.
In this deeply unsettled atmosphere, images of Egyptians scrapping for subsidized balady (bal-a-DEE) bread have left the government on edge. Proof of just how sensitive the issue remains could be seen in the response of Egyptian state security to a USA TODAY correspondent's visit to a second bakery later that April morning.
As the reporter and his translator left the bakery in the Rod El Faroq neighborhood, they were blocked by a plainclothes security officer. The man demanded the memory card from the reporter's camera, saying the images it contained — of men baking bread — posed "a threat to Egypt's national security."
The reporter and his translator were surrounded by at least seven policemen in white uniforms. Some threatened the bakery owner with prison for speaking with a foreign journalist.
The journalists were detained for five hours. Egyptian officials said no pictures could be taken in their country without advance government approval. The camera's memory card was returned, damaged.
That Egyptian officials regard photos of bakers at work as potentially incendiary is a measure both of bread's unrivaled importance in the Egyptian diet and of the government's concern that continued public discontent over food supplies could metastasize into something more threatening.
Officials here have good reason to be worried. In 1977, an abortive government effort to reduce the bread subsidies that are a lifeline for most Egyptians sparked widespread rioting, which led to dozens of deaths and forced the government to abandon its plans.
"People in Egypt may be considered passive or silent, but there's a limit to this. And when they reach that limit, one day there will be a popular explosion," said lawyer Esam Salam, interviewed at a cafe near Cairo's train station.
Former Pentagon official David Schenker, who lived in Cairo in the early 1990s and is with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, returned here recently for a visit and was stunned at the sour public mood.
"I was shocked," he says. "I find it very scary."
The Egyptian government has provided heavily subsidized bread for decades as a way to guarantee social peace in a nation where the nasbaseeta, or simple folk, have little control over the larger forces that buffet their lives.
The frustrating bread lines are mostly gone, but soaring prices for other foods are adding another burden to a population already under enormous stress. More than 40% of Egypt's 80 million people live on just $2 a day — what millions of Americans spend for a cup of coffee. Almost 20% get by on daily income of just $1.
On April 6, the latest in a string of mounting protests by disaffected workers seeking higher pay to keep up with double-digit inflation boiled over into riots in the textile capital of Mahalla.
Last week, in a rare show of public dissent, a Cairo University student heckled Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif during a speech.
The simmering unrest comes amid questions over Egypt's political future. President Hosni Mubarak — in office since the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat — turns 80 on Sunday. He is grooming his son Gamal to succeed him, but in this nominally democratic nation, many Egyptians resent the notion of what they regard as a "Pharaonic" succession. Opposition groups have called for Egyptians to stage a general strike on the president's birthday.
"We believe if the situation remains as it is, there will be the emergence of chaos in this country," says Ashraf Badr El-Din, a member of parliament from the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.
Bread plays a unique, almost mystical, role in Egyptian life. This is the only Arab country where people call the staple aish, or life, rather than khubz.
In the simple dusty villages far from the major cities, Egyptians developed 82 different types of bread, using corn, sorghum and barley as well as wheat, says Ahmed Khorshid, the government scientist known as the "father of bread" after a lifetime of research on the subject.
With the introduction of state subsidies in the 1960s, wheat bread became the standard. Today, Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world, placing annual orders of about 7 million tons, or roughly half its annual consumption.
Egypt's current predicament is just one facet of a global mosaic: 37 countries face a crisis over food, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
Weak or embattled governments in some of the world's poorest nations could be pushed to the brink of anarchy or beyond by the life-or-death pressures of scarce or expensive food.
Already, Haiti's government has been driven from office by violent protests over prices that are 50% to 100% higher than last year. Seven other countries — Egypt, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Indonesia and Madagascar — have suffered food riots.
Global food prices have risen 73% since 2006, but the increase for certain products has been even more dramatic. Edible oils are up 144%; cereals, including wheat and rice, are up 129%; dairy products have doubled in price.
World Bank President Robert Zoellick says the developing world's higher food bill will erase the past seven years of progress in reducing poverty. And prices are expected to remain elevated at least through 2009.
In Egypt, soaring food costs are straining government budgets and threatening to undermine 4-year-old economic reforms. Those market-oriented initiatives have spurred economic growth to an annual rate of 7% but are predicated upon sharp reductions in Egypt's bloated public subsidy bill.
The government was preparing to reduce spending that keeps food artificially cheap, but the global crisis forced Mubarak to reverse course.
Now, instead of cutting subsidies, he's dramatically increased them, staving off public discontent at the cost of a larger government deficit.
The WFP has labeled the spreading food crisis a "silent tsunami." But Egypt's food problem is no natural disaster. It's been compounded by government policies that distort markets.
The government keeps bread almost free — one loaf costs less than a penny — by subsidizing the wheat used to produce it.
However, the system is vulnerable to widespread corruption.
In recent months, as the global market price of wheat rose steadily higher, bakers began selling their subsidized flour to private bakeries rather than using it to make bread for the poor. Fifty-pound sacks of flour purchased from the government at a steep discount could be resold on the black market for roughly 10 times the subsidized price.
Diversions of subsidized flour occurred even as rising prices at the private bakeries caused more people to switch from buying their higher-priced bread to the cheaper version sold at the subsidized stores.
Market-priced bread, which had cost about 4 cents per loaf, jumped to almost 10 cents apiece as world grain prices soared. With less flour available to make bread even as more customers demanded it, the result was scarcity and long lines.
In March, Mubarak ordered the army to begin baking bread and distributing it through hastily established kiosks. Officials promised an end to bakery lines by the end of April.
By last week, there were indications that the acute phase of the episode had passed. But with food prices rising across the board at better than 20% annually, grumbling remains.
"The people are angry with the increase in prices. We don't know how to make ends meet," says Om Hashem Shaban, balancing on her head a torn white sack full of fresh bread.
Like the poor elsewhere, Egyptians cope with higher food prices by cutting back on expenditures for education and health care, says Bishow Parajuli, WFP country director.
To cope with fast-rising prices, Shaban says her family, including five children, eats less and occasionally skips meals. Most days, the menu usually consists only of bread.
Rice, Shaban says, "is more of a luxury item."
About 60 miles north of the Egyptian capital lies the country's agricultural heartland. Less than 3% of Egypt's territory is arable land. The best of it is found in the rich farmland of the Nile Delta.
Under a broiling sun, farmers trade rumors of the next move in commodities prices. Despite high prices for their crops, farmers here feel beset on all sides.
Their irrigation systems lack adequate maintenance. The cost of seeds and fertilizer has skyrocketed. Many pay rich landowners ever-higher rents for the right to work their modest lands. Those who own their own simple farms end up with smaller and smaller plots as each generation's inheritance subdivides farms among several sons.
Standing in a wheat field amid dive-bombing flies, farmer Samy Halim quotes a peasant proverb to explain his survival strategy: "Stretch your legs as far as your blanket. If you have a short blanket, don't stretch too much."
Smiling wanly, he adds, "We try to make a living. Sometimes, it's hard, but we do what we can."