Thursday, May 22, 2014

Letters from Egypt: When Elephants Fight, the Grass Suffers

Picture source: Wikipedia
I went over to grab a friend last night to treat them to a farewell dinner at one of my favorite places in Cairo (The Lemon Tree on the Imperial Boat in Zamalak). I say farewell because the friend will travel to the US for work, but since he is a defense contractor working alongside the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) – the situation is more than a little uncertain.

Paperwork was not filed within the allotted time by the EAF, and even though the EAF renewed some of the contracts, the money has not been provided to keep certain divisions. So it appears as though many US-Egypt conjoined activities will be halted until funds are freed up or dismissed indefinitely. Some Egyptians would be happy to hear that news. “We’ll just get the money from China” or “Who cares? We don’t need the US” are just a couple of statements I hear in response to any discussion of the US withdrawing financial support to Egypt (in this case, I’m referring to the military aid).

As we were leaving the building, each security staff member as well as others employed at this building stood up to shake my friend’s hand and say, “Thank you sir. This is my last night.” They were only told yesterday after 6 pm that it was their last day at work. Turning the corner, another contractor was sitting with two of the Egyptian staff members who have tears in their eyes.

Their job consisted of sitting in front of the building, guarding the embassy-issued vehicles, signing in guests and other security functions. It wasn’t a highly-involved job, but it was a job. It probably didn’t pay that much, but it paid. Egypt’s unemployment rate pre-revolution (2011, not to be confused with the 2013 coup) stood at a little over 10%, but has increased since to 13%. This one contract employs an estimated 200-300 Egyptians doing everything from cooking and cleaning to IT specialists and communications. And this isn’t the only contract under review.

The top generals and officials will not feel the pain, and while 200-300 people seem insignificant compared to the total Egyptian population (over 80 million), there will likely be more cuts. And this will continue the road to instability. Remember, the Arab Spring was started by a vegetable vendor in Tunisia unhappy with the lack of job opportunities.

Last night was a somber moment that made my heart ache for these guys.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers (Kenyan proverb)

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