Dispatch from Cairo: The pyramid scheme of violence-ravaged Egypt

In today's Egypt, incompetent middle-aged employees hold onto jobs until death, while qualified young people languish — and drift toward deadly rioting

CAIRO, EGYPT — This weekend, violence once again descended on downtown Cairo.

Police helicopters circled over the capital, dropping water in an attempt to squelch fires. Young people fought and died in the streets below.

Running street battles between angry youth on one side and police on the other have become disturbingly commonplace across Egypt. These days, such clashes rarely attract the attention of the international media. Among Egyptians, they have simply become an excuse to skip work or a source of cheap entertainment for those who enjoy watching teenage boys get their bodies torn up by police birdshot.

Almost anything can set these clashes off. Both hardline Islamists and their enemies on the left have been able to count on the same army of bored youth and homeless children to take up arms whenever they have any confrontation with the police.

This latest violence was set off by hardcore football fans, known as Ultras. The multitude of Ultra groups here blur the line between rowdy fan clubs and criminal gangs, and are characterized by a violent antipathy towards the interior ministry, police, and army. They are well known for joining in fights against security forces regardless of the cause.

The largest Ultra group, Ultras Ahlawy has a particularly deadly beef with the Egyptian police, which it holds responsible for the massacre of 74 of their compatriots at a bloody away game last year.

Enraged at a court verdict acquitting some of the accused officers, thousands of Ultras looted and burned various buildings associated with the police, and began attacking police officers. Anti-police activists and apparently bored homeless children joined the assault, and things predictably got out of control. Protesters set trees on fire, blocked roads, and attacked hotels and small businesses. At least three people, including one 8-year-old boy, were killed by police.

This violence is not incidental. Egypt's youth, faced with bleak economic prospects and a lack of political representation, are lashing out at all symbols of the state.

Most of my Egyptian friends are young adults from Egypt's relatively large but shrinking middle class. They are well educated, multilingual, and ambitious. But almost all of them are underemployed in low-paying, part-time jobs. The private sector here is infamously exploitative and unreliable, and public sector jobs, while secure, are low paying and vanishingly scarce.

While the Egyptian welfare state was able to provide relatively high levels of employment in generations past, the make-work programs are simply running out of money, leaving a system in which incompetent middle-aged employees hold onto jobs until death, while qualified young people languish.

This dynamic, combined with Egypt's crumbling infrastructure, contributes to a sense that Egyptian society is like a pyramid scheme. If you were born early enough, you got the Egypt of parks, pride, and employment. Those born too late have gotten trash-filled streets, economic uncertainty, and crowded chaos.

While the educated minority here is increasingly frustrated, the majority of Egyptians born into poverty are truly desperate. While poor people in Egypt have always had it rough, decades of cuts in social programs have left a huge swath of Egyptian society destitute — working jobs in construction, agriculture, and street vending that offer nothing more than a lifetime of starvation wages.

At the bottom end of Egypt's underclass are the countless homeless children who were cast out by impoverished parents. Packs of barefoot, filthy preadolescents are ubiquitous in central parts of Cairo, and are often drawn to street violence like moths to a flame, serving as stone-throwing cannon fodder for both the police and demonstrators.

Despite some meaningful changes since the revolution, all the major political parties are led by rich old men. Even party youth groups and student unions are often run by well-connected men in their 60s.

While the young people here tend to be passionate about political issues, there is broad disillusionment toward the political elite. Even the secularist parties who constantly seek the backing of the youth protest movement are generally ignored, if not openly disdained by the masses of young people chanting and fighting police.

Ultras are among the only groups truly organized by and for young people. Furthermore, many political youth groups, shut out of political authority, are increasingly mimicking the Ultras' disdain for the democratic process and their glorification of nihilistic, neverending violence, with supposedly political protests turning into free-for-all riots that target small businesses, journalists, and passersby.

The lack of positive change and constant political violence has caused a sort of cult of martyrdom in Egypt. You see the faces of dead young men everywhere in Cairo. Their glorified likenesses are spray painted on the walls of nearly every major street, printed on huge banners and screened on shirts. Young activists change their Facebook profile pictures to smiling photographs of the latest youngster to die in clashes.

In a country where young people struggle to get the most basic level of dignity, the message is clear: If you die fighting police, you will become a loved and respected symbol.

The fact that the ever-present violence is destroying the Egyptian economy and actually making prospects for employment worse is lost on the thousands of protesters who flock downtown to fight police nearly every weekend.

It seems a whole generation of Egyptians is turning its back on elections in favor of never-ending violent agitation.

Unless the nation's leaders can create true opportunity for Egyptians in general and youth in particular, young people will grow up thinking the only way to gain power and respect is through nihilistic and destructive violence.

Egypt is caught in a vicious cycle. The violence here is scaring away tourists and investors, causing further economic hardship that leads to even more horrific violence. If this cycle goes unbroken and the largest Arab nation falls to chaos, it will spell disaster for the entire region.


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