Egypt’s poor suffer in silence

Friday 29/01/2016
A man sleeps between tombstones in front of his single-room home on a hot night in the Cairo Necropolis.

Cairo - The narrow alleyways in­side the walled southern Cairo tomb compound where Abdullah Salah has made his home for almost 20 years were calm and peaceful. However, this is the kind of calm that reminds the 50-year-old of the unfortunate nature of his life and his unfulfilled dreams.

“I have always dreamed of liv­ing in an apartment building in one of the neighbourhoods of this city like all other people,” said Salah, a minivan driver. “But I have to choose between either feeding my three children and paying for their schools or paying the rent.”

According to unofficial estimates, some 5 million Egyptians have chosen, because of tough circum­stances, to live in cemeteries due to high housing prices, Egypt’s urban crush and overcrowding. Another large number of people live on the streets in makeshift homes and un­der bridges or in sprawling slums. This is a strong indicator of ram­pant poverty throughout Egypt.

In 2015, 26.3% of Egypt’s popula­tion was considered poor, accord­ing to the state-run Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statis­tics (CAPMAS), which said recently that poverty was especially high in the southern provinces, where almost 50% of residents qualify as being “poor”.

Economists attribute Egypt’s “persistent” poverty to misguided economic policies, the lack of in­vestment and unequal distribution of wealth.

“Reducing poverty rates will be this or any future government’s most difficult task,” said Mukhtar Sherif, an economics professor from al-Azhar University. “This is particularly so, given the slow growth of the economy, the lack of investment and the presence of an endless line of jobless people whom the government needs to employ to reduce poverty.”

In 2013, the Egyptian economy grew less than 2%, which meant the government was not able to spend enough on social welfare and pov­erty-reduction programmes.

In 2014 and 2015, the economy picked up, stimulated by improving security and political conditions, reaching a growth rate of almost 4%, even as unemployment re­mained at 12.9% of the workforce of 26 million.

A strengthening economy has helped the government allocate about $12.5 billion to social welfare programmes in the 2015-16 budget, a fraction of the amount earmarked for such programmes in previous budgets.

One of the programmes, accord­ing to Assistant Social Solidarity Minister Neveen al-Kabag, seeks to offer the necessary financial pro­tection to economically disadvan­taged families.

“These are families whose mem­bers cannot either be part of the job market or have a stable source of income,” Kabag said. “They include families supported by disabled citi­zens and others whose main bread­winners are too old to work and earn a living.”

More than 450,000 families have applied to the programme, known as Solidarity, Kabag said. Other government programmes seek to empower the poor by helping them start small businesses and become financially independent.

Hundreds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities race to keep up with the number of people in need. One is Orman, a charity that has been helping poor citizens since 1993.

In 2015, Orman distributed more than 3,600 cows to villagers so they could start milk production; paid for open-heart surgeries of more than 12,000 people; bought more than 12,000 kiosks for unemployed youths, where they can sell sweets and newspapers; and offered long-term, no-interest loans to thou­sands of people, according to char­ity Deputy Chairman Mahmoud Fouad.

“We try to offer a helping hand in the fight against poverty,” Fouad said. “Our aim is to turn these poor citizens into a productive force that can be a good addition to the econ­omy.”

As important as the charitable help is, economists such as Mukhtar say, drastic and well-calculated economic governmental measures are needed to address poverty.

“This can actually be done by encouraging investments, tak­ing measures to reduce consumer inflation and price hikes and also rethinking the subsidy policy to ensure that subsidies reach the needy,” Mukhtar said.

But the millions of Egyptians liv­ing in cemeteries seem to be off the radar of government or civil society.

At a daily income of less than $6.20, Salah can hardly feed his three children and pay for school­ing.

Inside his mausoleum-cum-home, life is simple. His mother sat on the floor inside a roofless room, a tomb at its middle, and cooked food on a small kerosene stove.

Here, televisions are unheard of, refrigerators are an unaffordable luxury and woven plastic floor car­pets turn into beds, even during the biting-cold weather.

Fed up with this austere and mor­bid life, Salah’s wife fled a few years ago, leaving him, his mother and the children behind.

“She could not live by the dead like we do now,” Salah said. “I would have lived a better life if I could but this is totally out of my hands.”