Beyond the World news headlines
A Taxi, an accountant and his four sons
It was a simple question but it touched a raw nerve.
Mohamed, my 46-year-old taxi driver, had been wondering where I learnt Arabic. So I explained that I had been based in Egypt a few years ago and had now returned to take up a new post in the Reuters bureau. So, I asked, how’s life these days?
And then it began. He launched into a tirade about an economy where the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer,a government that only seemed concerned about staying in power and the difficulty of paying for the education of his four sons — the eldest of whom he is now supporting through university.
Taxi drivers are an all-too-common sounding ground for foreign journalists and the kind of rant I listened to is probably not so unusual the world over. But what made Mohamed’s comments striking is that taxi drivers in other countries probably aren’t, like him, fully qualified accountants.
“There are doctors, engineers, teachers, all of them driving taxis. They just don’t earn enough otherwise,” he told me, grinding to a halt as a pick-up tried to do a U-turn in the middle of a narrow road. “This government doesn’t even provide order.” It’s hard to argue with that point on the streets of the capital where even the newest cars have scratches and dents, testimony to traffic rules that seem to be regarded — at least to any visitor — as optional.
Mohamed quit accountancy 15 years ago when he realised it couldn’t pay the bills. Now he earns about 50 to 60 Egyptian pounds, $9 to $11, for each 10-hour day. That’s what he takes home after paying for fuel and keeping his car on the road, giving him about 1,200 to 1,400 pounds a month. He might earn just half that as an accountant for the government, which still dominates the job market despite a raft of liberalising reforms introduced by a cabinet appointed in 2004.
Since those reforms were implemented, the economy has grown at quite a clip. Growth hit 7 percent last year, the level economists had long said Egypt needed to finally start creating enough jobs to cut unemployment rather than simply keep pace with population growth in this country of 80 million (The global crisis has taken its toll on the export and tourist-oriented economy, however, and depressed growth to 4 percent this year).
Despite a strong performance that has drawn praise from the World Bank and international investors, most ordinary Egyptians say the only thing that has changed for them are prices — food and other goods have become more expensive. Inflation and subsidised bread shortages sparked public protests and violence last year — the height of the boom — and prompted the government to order a 30 percent hike in some state wages. The debate filling newspapers now is whether the government will deliver an adequate rise in this year’s budget starting in July.
It’s not just workers who are struggling. Middle class Egyptians are feeling the squeeze. Mohamed pays for extra private tuition for his kids because he says the state system is inadequate. It is a story you hear from many middle class households. As if to prove Mohamed’s point, the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm daily, on the day he spoke, carried a frontpage article describing a school in south Egypt with 952 children,educated in two shifts a day, but only 100 chairs. Girls have seats and boys sit on the floor, it said with an accompanying photograph.
When I could get a word in edgeways, I asked Mohamed why there weren’t more protests like last year. “I’ll tell you,” he explained. “The people are not united, they are afraid to go out and protest. And, of course, most people are too busy trying to feed and educate their families.”
That’s also a common refrain. The Egyptian authorities tend to send heavy security to head off protests and only allow regular demonstrations in a few specific spots in the capital.
Even when demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981, and his government hit the streets of the capital more broadly around 2005, they rarely gathered more than a few hundred activists. The argument then, as now, was people just have too many other concerns.
“I’m sorry to have spoken to you like this. But I have so much frustration inside. It’s a beautiful country but it is run badly,” he said. Appropriately, we were running alongside an attractive stretch of the Nile by then.
At the end of the drive, I asked him if I could use his name but he said he’d probably end up in jail if I did. So I’ve changed it though I am not sure he would have been locked up. I also tipped him $5 on top of the $5 fare (you can go a long way rather cheaply in Egypt). Most of my taxi drivers aren’t so lucky with my tips but I’m still not sure I offered him enough after he gave me such insight.