Freedom, bread, dignity: Has Egypt answered Jan. 25 demands?
One cry echoed louder than other chants
When thousands upon thousands of people marched through Egypt’s streets in January 2011, one cry echoed louder than other chants. It was a demand for “bread, freedom and dignity.”
One of the many reasons that drove scores of Egyptians to leave their homes and take to the street was the worsening situation for not only the country’s poor, but also a multi-layered middle class which was struggling to make ends meet.
More than a quarter of Egypt’s 85-million-strong population currently lives below the poverty line, and many depend on bread subsidies which saw major reform in 2014.
“[It is] a successful policy, it guarantees that those who are in dire need of the subsidized bread, get it,” Abdallah Khalil, a legal researcher formerly with the U.N. Development Program, told Al Arabiya News.
Under the new system, families are issued “smart cards” allowing them to buy five loaves per day for each family member.
Buyers no longer have to queue. Bakeries are reimbursed for the subsidized loaves they sell, rather than being given a fixed allotment of cheap flour, which should make it harder to siphon off subsidies.
Once rolled out nationwide, the reforms will eliminate enough waste to enable Egypt to cut imports by 20 to 30 percent, without depriving needy citizens, Supplies Minister Khaled Hanafi, who has led the reforms, told Reuters news agency in 2014.
The cards have so far been introduced in 17 of Egypt's 29 provinces and consumption in those areas is already down between 15 to 35 percent, he added.
While Khalil described the policy as a “positive outcome,” he said that it is yet to reach remote areas such as the outskirts of Upper Egypt, which he said has always suffered a shortage of state services and subsidies.
According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, most of the country’s rural poor live in Upper Egypt and are yet to access these services.
Considering the Egyptian state’s current development policies, Khalil said “extraordinary efforts” are needed to alleviate the suffering of the 26.3 percent who live below the poverty line.
He added that any future attempts to tackle growing poverty “will not be successful without the inclusion of civil society.”
Khalil, now a private consultant on development issues, said that the state and the private sector are monopolizing projects aimed at improving the poor’s status.
“Until now, poorer areas still do not have clean, running water,” Khalil said.
“These areas suffer from water contamination, which leads to severe health problems. With respect to [providing] appropriate and sanitary housing, there has been no development in policies,” he added.
Another part of the growing frustration with Hosni Mubarak’s regime was repeated arrests and clampdowns on protests and political activism.
In 2014, a protest law limited the freedom of assembly, requiring prior authorization from police.
Consequently, by October of 2014, 23 people had been sentenced to at least three years in prison for defying the law, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported.
“It’s back to business as usual in Egypt, with the Egyptian government brazenly trampling on the rights of its citizens,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for the rights group said.
“The law sends a powerful message from the state to society: you are simply not allowed to protest,” Ahmed Ragheb, lawyer and director of Egypt’s National Group for Human Rights and Law, told Al Arabiya News.
“And whoever does will be treated like members of the Brotherhood or will be shot at, or imprisoned,” he said in reference to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, designated a terrorist organization by Cairo.
“It’s as bad as it gets,” Ragheb added, comparing the current climate to that in the years prior to January 2011, adding that media freedoms have been hit in 2014.
Alarmingly, the Egyptian press saw a surge in self-censorship when a group of editors signed a letter pledging to refrain from criticizing the police, army or judiciary.
"The leaders of media organizations, who presumably watch over the public interest, are voluntarily silencing themselves and pledging to cease performing their duty,” Abeer Najjar, a professor of media studies at the American University of Sharjah told Al Arabiya News.
“The main role of the media as the fourth estate is to inform the public. An informed public is the basic requirement for any democratic system.”
The editors in their declaration, she added, “betrayed their professional obligation towards the Egyptian public, towards their profession and have jeopardized the integrity of their own organizations.”
And with regards to the state of media freedoms today compared to 2011, Najjar said : “Freedom House’s ‘Freedom of the Press’ numbers show the Egyptian media was partly free between 2010 and 2012, it became not free in 2013 and continued to be so in 2014.”
The brutal death of 28-year-old Khaled Said in 2010 shed light on repeated human rights violations by Egypt’s law enforcement.
A campaign in solidarity with Said, plus a myriad other strikes, groupings and protests, morphed into the nationwide marches that eventually toppled Mubarak.
“I don’t think that social justice, with the meaning that the people called for, was achieved in the last four years,” Ragheb said, adding that he does not see improvements ahead.
“It will not happen,” he said, making a reference to police being cleared of charges of allegedly beating and killing protestors.
“The police is on trial, but it is trying itself,” he added, explaining that the interior ministry was the authority responsible for collecting evidence in cases of police brutality.
“This needs a strong political will that will only come with real political change” that would also include a change in the state’s “mindset,” Ragheb added.
As to the socio-economic aspect of social justice, the Egyptian state continues to fall behind in terms of development policy, namely in providing affordable housing.
“There has been negative conduct on behalf of the government with respect to middle-class housing where one unit would reach 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($67,500) and that is not easy for the poor or the middle class,” Khalil said.
As for low-cost housing, which the government plans on introducing, the state has set a condition that those applying must have a minimum income of 3,000 pounds.
“There is hardly one poor person in Egypt with an income of 3,000 pounds,” Khalil said, adding that the ability to acquire appropriate housing unit from the government is still unattainable.
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