At dawn on the first day of Eid, the Egyptian channel ONTV, owned by famous Egyptian businessman Najib Sawiris who supported Tamarod, the popular campaign against ousted President Mohammad Mursi, aired an episode of the American documentary “Why Poverty?” It played the episode “Park Avenue,” which narrates the vast distance between the richest of the rich, who live in a grand building in York’s Park Avenue, and the poor and the middle-class, whom some call the mob.
I highly doubt that the Egyptian channel which led the campaign against Mursi, and which on a daily basis calls for ending the protest of Mursi’s supporters in Rabia al-Adawiya’s Square, aired the series in order to divert the subject from current political disputes, get the Egyptians interested in the country’s economic reality and tax reform, or that it aims to bridge the gap that widens everyday between the haves and the have-nots. I think the channel played the episode only to fill the vacuum. Few people would have watched it if weren’t Eid and we are still used to the Ramadan routine of staying up at night and sleeping during the day.
Egypt’s core issues
Although the series deals with Egypt’s core issues – poverty and social inequality – no one, until now, wanted to discuss such issues amid the current political war raging over identity, culture and classes. It would be difficult to project the themes of the series, which tackles the defects of the American society, to Egypt’s state, although it’s theoretically possible to do so not just in Egypt but in any country that suffers from social inequality, unequal distribution of wealth, and poverty. There are always rich men allied with politicians, paying less tax and exploiting politics to serve their own interests. They see themselves as a force for good, providing jobs, services and goods. They see themselves as the ones who know what’s best for the country and its people.
Although the series deals with Egypt’s core issues – poverty and social inequality – no one, until now, wanted to discuss such issues amid the current political war raging over identity, culture and classes.Jamal Khashoggi
On the other side, there is the public, sometimes offensively called “mobs.” Economists call them the middle class and the lower class (the poor). They say these classes cost the state billions in support programs to help with high living costs. They are billions shared by the upper class since they receive the money via a formula in which the state bears the cost of some goods or enjoys certain privileges in prices of energy, water or customs’ exemption. This should theoretically serve the poor by providing them with essential goods with lower prices. Low incomes represent a massive share in the state’s budget. The state spends through this budget controlling massive numbers of citizens. The latter are thus loyal to the state thanks to these wages, although they do not tire complaining of how insufficient these wages are. At the same time, members of the upper-class do not hesitate to accuse them of laziness. But they differ here from their American counterparts. They do not call for sacking these people from their jobs by downsizing companies. In Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, there is a socialist culture that still dominates even in oil-rich countries. But over there, this culture takes the form of a state responsible for all tribe members on some level at least.
It’s also difficult to apply the characters of the American series to Egypt’s state. Who would be the democrats defending the public’s rights (theoretically)? And who would be the republicans supporting the upper class and the proprietors? The struggle over economic ideas has not at all surfaced in Egypt. The fight is still over governance, and whoever seizes power develops and implements any policy it wants. In the American case, however, there are continuous debates among politicians over different economic concepts. There’s also a decrease of the state’s domination over the society – a concept that seems to develop as democracy progresses in any country. Here lies the paradox. Over there, where democracy and the people’s sovereignty reign, economic policies must be adopted upon a consensus according to the rules of popular representation that resulted from real elections.
The 'perfect society'?
The series is based on the novel “Atlas Shrugged” – a famous novel on American politics written by Ayn Rand and published in 1957. The novel is based on the idea of the upper class and the businessmen withdrawing from the economy after failing to control American policy through the congress and lobbies. An elected government imposes taxes and laws against the upper class for the sake of achieving justice and better distribution of fortune. As a result, they abandon their factories and banks and withdraw to build a “perfect society” void of the government’s control. Chaos spreads in the rest of the country as economy, security and public services collapse. The public and the mobs thus realize the disaster they willingly sought via ballot boxes.
The situation in Egypt and other post-Arab Spring countries differs. The upper class does not have to withdraw because it can still control the state and impose the vision it sees best for the society. But all of this depends on its ability to control the democratic path and the “mob’s” desires.
But I doubt that Najib Sawiri wanted to bring up all these ideas through airing Park Avenue. The station was merely filling an empty slot until another guest suggesting a new means to end the Rabia al-Aadawiya protest arrives.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on August 10, 2013.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.
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