New York and Cairo: The revolt against Neo- Liberalism
by Abdallah Schleifer
Bill de Blasio has been elected mayor of New York, overwhelming his Republican Party opponent who has strong Wall Street pedigree, by campaigning that New York had become a “Tale of Two Cities.” On the one hand it is a Wall Street millionaire’s playground, and on the other hand the poor and even the struggling middle class are being driven out of New York’s most culturally defining of the five boroughs - Manhattan - by soaring rents.
This is a state of which the mayor’s office over the past two decades, held during that period by two Republicans, has been focused on developing Manhattan at the expense of the other four boroughs. A city in which the income gap between the “one percent” and “the rest” grows wider year by year, as is the case for the entire country, for much of Europe and for Egypt during the last decade of Mubarak’s rule.
Egypt’s income gap would have continued to grow if any sort of prosperity had returned (which it hadn’t) during the Mursi/Muslim Brotherhood era of governance. Their economic program meant still more privatization which has seen workers fired, often entire factories closed down and the site transformed instead into middle and upper class housing. There is plenty of housing, about 40 percent lies vacant as investors hold onto it either for the purpose of speculation or to house their children and eventual grandchildren. All this while more than half of the Egyptian population are ill housed and the lack of affordable housing prevents hundreds of thousands of young couples from marrying.
The housing situation
There was a concept of affordable housing during the Mubarak reign, and no indication that it stopped under Mursi, which was to sell off government land at very cheap prices to private developers in the desert just outside of Cairo. In this area, without any government planning, there were no provisions for mass transit or local employment (i.e no factories or other business developments).
Working class Egyptians knew that if there were no employment options they would have to commute to their jobs in the city and without mass transit and not owning cars even that would not be viable. So, the apartment houses, which appear to be built quite adequately, are slowly filling up with middle class families with cars for both commuting to work and for shopping at otherwise unreachable shopping centers.
It is possible this was understood and calculated from the beginning and that the program of Affordable Housing was just a scam to sell off government property dirt-cheap to favored developers. These desert cities in Kahara Gadida (New Cairo) are not all fake affordable properties – some are gated communities consisting of single dwelling villas intended for the upper middle class from the beginning, and I suspect the here too land was sold off cheap.
As for de Blasio, he had already come from behind to win the Democratic primary pledging to raise City taxes on the rich and provide free pre-kindergarten schooling - a critical need for poor families in which both parents must work to survive, or for the many single mother families, single by divorce, or effectively single when husbands are in prison. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Linked to that is the widespread use, by the New York police, of stop-and-search-without-cause activities which tends to focus on Black and Latino Americans (80 per cent of those stopped). Possession of a couple of joints of marijuana or hashish sends an otherwise law-abiding citizen to prison.
If the Cairo police undertook such operations on the scale of the New York police department, probably one third of the law abiding and productive male population of Cairo would end up in jail.
De Blasio promised to cut back on stop-and-search as well, and it did not cost him the votes of the white working class and lower middle class voters , nervous about street crime in which Blacks figured well out of proportion to their numbers, and who recall high crime rates for real crime (theft, muggings, armed robbery were far higher before the use of stop-and-search-without-cause). But he still carried white working class districts because of his championing of more fundamental issues – putting the municipality back into the hands of those who believe government should be concerned with helping the 99 percent, not the one percent.
De Blasio’s victory is also a challenge to the national Democratic Party’s leadership, which has been unwilling to take on Wall Street for at least the past three decades, going along with the de-regulation of all commerce and lower taxes for the rich while cutting benefits for the poor, and that includes the Obama administration. The Republicans are embroiled in what has become an undisguised class war against the poor and struggling people - cutting funding for food stamps, opposition even to Obama’s diluted from of Affordable Medical Care.
The Democratic party has been proudly identified with caring about social justice and programs providing safety nets for the poor and the middle class at the time of Roosevelt’s New Deal (l932-1945) and Truman’s Fair Deal (1948-1952). So, unlike the Republicans, it has to disguise its subservience to Wall Street. Instead, it has championed Life-Style Liberalism which favors issues like legalizing same-sex marriage or the integration of women in Army combat units (and then wonders about rising rates of rape in the armed services, or without rape being involved at all, in the rising rate of pregnancies among women serving in combat units).
De Blasio doesn’t concern himself with such issues, and although he is a lapsed Catholic, he does not demonstrate the sort of hostility to religious belief that characterizes Life-Style Liberalism.
On the contrary, de Blasio’s emphasis on social justice appears to have undercut another curse in the recent history of the Democratic Party - identity politics- so he ended up securing more support from Black voters in the Democratic primary than either of his two opponents - one a Black politician and the other Christine Quinn, the supposed favorite; head of the City Council whose claim to fame as a Democrat was her alliance with the pro-Wall Street millionaire Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She is also famous for holding hands and kissing in public - as a proud ,assertive lesbian - her “wife.” Great stuff for Life-Style Liberals.
Many people call de Blasio a “progressive.” I never liked that term, even when I was a radical socialist back in the1960s. I believed then, and still believe now, that you seek social justice for its own sake, not because it means progressing on some road to Utopia. So I prefer de Blasio as “harbinger,” to quote The Guardian, of a new American populist left.
In Cairo, the prime minister of Egypt’s transitional government, Hazem al-Beblawi, has announced he will use the billions of dollars advanced by Arab Gulf allies (Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait) not to reduce the budget, nor will he further cut subsidies for bread and other basics - conditions for an IMF loan which al-Beblawi says Egypt is no longer interested in. Beblawi, and presumably Deputy Prime Minister General al-Sisi reject the IMF’s Neo-Liberal road to austerity despite economic recession: a cure that is tearing Greece apart, destroying hundreds of thousands of jobs in a country where the subservient Greek government is selling off or closing down basic public sector services.
That, in a stealth manner, was what Mohammad Mursi’s government was doing during its one year in office - it was a Neo-Liberal program supposedly in the name of Islam. More privatization, no public works projects and hostility to independent trade unions. Mursi’s failure to move the economy, generate jobs and stop the slide in public services is really what motivated most of the many millions who turned out for the June 30 demonstrations, it was not about secular liberalism.
On the contrary, Beblawi’s government has come up with a four and a half billion dollar stimulus spending program that raises the minimum wage for public sector employees (still the largest sector of employment in Egypt) and will undertake labor-intensive public works to get Egyptians working again. At the beginning of 2014, the government promises to launch an even bigger stimulus program. It also promises to clean up and re-finance public sector hospitals, public education and other public services all of which have been neglected in Egypt since the death of Gamal Abdul Nasser.
Cross published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author. Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza…and Jerusalem.”