The last time I saw Cairo was April, 1999. I was on a five-day Easter break from my publicity duties on Gladiator, which had been filming on Malta for about a month with two months left to shoot.
My cab driver had dropped me in the heart of the city, outside the Museum of Egypt. I avoided the hustlers and tour guides, walking fast in no particular direction into main business district. I’d already hit the tourist spots, the Museum, the Citadel, the mosques, the tombs where living and dead shared residential space. I wanted some time on the unruly streets of this urban labyrinth. I wanted to go where tourists fear to tread.
I started north along Shari Champollion, named after the Frenchman who broke the code of the Rosetta Stone, towards the Coptic section of El Azbakiya. Cutting south again, I wandered sidestreets along the spine of Shari Muhammad Farid, who was either a famous physician or one of the heroes of the overthrow of King Farouk - depending on who you talked to.
Who you talked to became a bigger problem the farther I ventured into the A’bdin district where few of the shopkeepers, clerks or people on the street spoke much, if any, English. I sensed no hostility towards me as a Westerner. Only the universal frustration of people unable to understand what I was asking or to make themselves understood.
I found a bookstore that had only Arabic novels in the window but sold a few books in English. I bought Naghib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk - a novel that had been banned in Egypt before he won the Nobel Prize in ’88. I took it to a large, spartan café across the street where I ordered a coffee that tasted like sweetened hot tar and examined the glass cabinets which contained a half-dozen plain rolls and as many biscotti.
The only other customers in the shop were a table of four young Egyptian men, one of whom had a spiral notebook, another a hard-covered text of some sort. They might have been students, though I guessed they were in their early to mid-twenties. It was just as likely they were among the growing number of educated unemployed in this country.
Egypt underwent what globalization gurus call “economic modernization” during the 1990s, ticking off the checklist of requirements for full participation in the goldrush of integrated commerce and technologies: controlling inflation, reducing debt and building reserves.
The only thing they hadn’t been able to do was reduce unemployment. In fact, the new Egyptian economic model - lean, mean and ready for competitive entry into the international marketplace - had brought about a significant increase in unemployment.
Between 1988 and 1998, nearly a million people a year entered a labor force that had no labor for them to perform. A large number of them were well educated – in a country where agriculture still accounted for 42% of the nation’s work force.
Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman and other celebrants of global markets claim this kind of “correction” is to be expected. As an economy changes from, say, largely agrarian to mostly technical or industrial, there is a predictable disruption to the lives and livelihoods of the untrained. What wasn’t figured into the equation by most proponents of a headfirst dive into the capitalist mosh pit was an economy that educated its people faster than it could employ its educated people.
This was happening throughout Egypt where levels of education had been improving at a rate independent of the economic expansion. Increasing numbers of graduates were leaving high schools with high hopes, only to find that the dropouts already had all the jobs.
“Educational and training systems continue to churn out graduates, taking little or no account of the actual demand for labor,” professor Samir Radwan asserted in a study for the office of the Director General of the International Labor Organization.
Consider that 33% of the people who actually have jobs in Egypt are illiterate, while 55% of the unemployed have an “intermediate” education (above 8th grade). One can only conclude that an applicant has a better chance of getting a job in Egypt today if he or she can’t fill out an application.
The Globalism advocates suggest that these unemployed, educated youths will be part of the vanguard of social change. But a repressive regime, like those throughout the Middle East, isn’t going to initiate reform just because its growing intellectual underclass is growing impatient.
The guy with the spiral notebook shook a cigarette from the pack lying at the center of his table and turned in my direction. He had a thin moustache and goatee, dark eyes narrow and alert. He lit up and peered through the smoke, catching me looking at him. Our eyes locked for a brief moment. Then he turned his gaze as one failing to identify anything of importance in his line of sight.
I left Cairo the next day. It has rarely left my consciousness. After the events of this week, I know why. Egypt has too many smart people to tolerate a repressive regime. We can only hope that means they’re smart enough not to go the way of Iran. Let’s also hope the West doesn’t pander to Israeli apprehensions and allows Egypt to find its own version of democracy. So far, President Obama seems smart enough to recognize this.
Anything and Everything that has Nothing to Do with the Movies
Sometimes, we go to a movie to get away from the world and sometimes we go to see what’s going on in the world. This blog will offer comments on the world, the movies and their occasional overlap.