Egypt underclass finds voice, voting against misery

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 08, 2012 10:08 AM
Egypt underclass finds voice, voting against misery

By Tom Perry

CAIRO (Reuters) - In the Cairo shantytown of Dweika, raw sewage forms puddles in dirt roads and families of seven or more live crammed into two-room shacks that appear in imminent danger of collapse - as does the ground beneath their feet.

Built on a rock plateau overlooking the heart of Cairo, Dweika's residents represent an underclass that mushroomed in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, part of the deep socioeconomic malaise awaiting whoever wins the election to succeed him.

"They call us the refuse of society," said Abu Dunya, a man in his 30s who lives with his five children and wife in a brick hut that is splashed by sewage whenever his neighbors use their toilet.

For the residents of Dweika, this week's election is historic in more ways than one, marking a rare occasion when they are on an equal footing with better-off Egyptians.

They say they will hold to account any president who fails to live up to promises to improve their lot. In Mubarak's Egypt, police extortion often amounted to their only interaction with an oppressive, unaccountable state.

State neglect of their community was encapsulated by the government's response to a rockslide in 2008 that crushed part of the slum, along with more than 100 of its residents. Anger at the slow and inadequate rescue effort triggered protests.

The residents here live in fear that the flow of sewage into the rock beneath their feet could cause yet another catastrophe. "It can go at any moment," said Abu Dunya, the ground shaking as he stamped his foot to illustrate the point.

Their demands of the incoming president - decent housing, education, health and jobs that pay a living wage - reflect the concerns of many of the 50 million Egyptians eligible to vote. Some 40 percent of the population of 82 million live on less than $2 a day. Social justice has been a campaign promise of all candidates.

But the concerns go beyond the necessities of life. In streets where garbage rots under the baking sun, there is talk of dignity in the post-Mubarak order.

"I am voting so I can be something in this society. Otherwise, why am I living?" said Mona Mahmoud, a 45-year-old mother of two who lives in a brick hut with walls riddled with cracks and a roof held up by a plank of wood.

"We are uneducated, but we now have rights."

THEY ARE SCARED OF US NOW

Though some residents are illiterate, the debate over who should be Egypt's next president is as lively here as anywhere. Basic services are in short supply, but television sets are not and the nightly marathon of political talk shows has replaced free movie channels as preferred viewing.

In the main commercial street, one of the few made of asphalt, campaign posters for two Islamists - Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh and the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi - outnumber the rest.

But in interviews, it was hard to detect any clear pattern of support, making Dweika a microcosm of a country where nascent polling organizations are struggling to find consistent trends.

There was a grocer who said he would vote for Amr Moussa because of his diplomatic experience and a microbus driver who thought Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, was the right man for the job because of his military experience.

At the other end of the political spectrum, there was a stationery seller who said only an Islamist could reform a corrupt state and a carpenter who believed Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist, was the right choice because he would help the poor.

But they agreed there should be no return to the ways of the past. Since Mubarak was swept from power by a mass uprising, the people here have enjoyed a respite from police fines they said used to be imposed arbitrarily, wiping out their hard-earned income.

"They dealt with us as if were insects, stepping on us all the time," said Ibrahim Tawfiq, a 36-year-old taxi driver who said the police had confiscated his driving license for no good reason more times than he could remember.

"The rules of the game are changing." added Wael Yahya, a 40-year-old grocer, who recalled a hefty fine he was once served by a government official who wrongly accused him of illegally hosing down the street outside his shop.

But things have changed. "The government is scared of us now," he added.

"We want this fear to continue so that the president and other officials understand they are there for the service of the people."

(Writing by Tom Perry; editing by Andrew Roche)