To cope or to resist: How people deal with abruptly deteriorating economic conditions

On November 3, the Central Bank of Egypt announced the liberalization of the currency exchange rate in the lead-up to receipt of a US$12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund aimed at decreasing the budget deficit and public debt. The immediate outcomes of the decision were a steep devaluation of the Egyptian pound and price hikes across the board, but the implications on the quality of life and broader living conditions across classes are yet to unfold.

In this conversation, anthropologists Reem Saad and Yasmine Moataz speak with Mada Masr’s politics and society editors Lina Attalah and Naira Antoun about their research into the history of Egyptian rural communities’ responses and suffering in the face of hardship induced by economic repression. In particular, we look at how people survived through deteriorating economic conditions, and at which points these conditions were met with resistance.

Through these experiences, we try to articulate some pertinent questions to understand how people may handle the current economic circumstances.

Lina Attalah: Reem, your research on rural preludes to the 2011 revolution covers questions of survival and coping in the face of sudden impoverishment. Give us a glimpse of this work.

Reem Saad: I worked on a moment of sudden impoverishment similar to the moment we are living in now. The circumstances and the context were different, but there was an event that led to abrupt impoverishment. It was the moment of loss of land that followed the full implementation of the 1992 agricultural land tenancy law in 1997, when 1 million agricultural families — about 10 percent of Egypt’s population — lost the land they had been renting for a long time and which they had dealt with as if it was theirs. They lost an important source of labor and food. They suddenly dropped down the social ladder and were faced with the question of how they would live. The direct way of asking this would be to ask how they would eat.

This moment is similar to the current moment because there was a buildup of anticipation, like there is now. The government was very anxious that, when the day came and the loss happened, there would be major disruptions. The opposition was hoping that this moment would mean a revolution, in the belief that resistance and popular anger are directly proportional to the extent of economic repression. This is also similar to what we are in now.

The more the economic crisis worsens, the more the fear of a revolution of the hungry on the part of the state grows, which translates as hope on the part of the opposition. But these cases show us that the issue is more complicated and that people don’t necessarily revolt the more you repress them economically.

That day in October 1997 passed without major crises. For the opposition, the day passed without a revolution. All of a sudden, this very important thing — 10 percent of the population losing their main source of income — was immediately erased from the political agenda, with its long-term effects forgotten and neglected. These long-term effects are destructive and important, as they are changes in the infrastructure of society, the bodies of the people. People wonder after that, why there is so much poverty or why we’re seeing increased rates of dwarfism in children. The event set in motion long-term processes, but it stopped being politically sexy. When I talk about the expulsion of 1 million families from the land, it’s different from talking about the percentage of protein intake – the stories don’t have the same political weight. Research like that of Sarah Sabry on dwarfism and malnutrition is worth highlighting. This is directly related to the mechanisms of impoverishment.

LA: So how did these families deal with the loss?

RS: Of course they dealt with it by downgrading their quality of life. There are some standard things people do. Unfortunately, the decisions that lead to major impoverishment on such a wide scale tend to hit the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, women — those who are already squeezed and disadvantaged.

There were two things after the land tenancy law: decreasing spending and finding other sources of revenues. Decreasing spending would be through taking children out of school — if they had to choose between a boy and a girl, it would be the girl taken out. We use the euphemism of “changing dietary habits” but what we mean is simply that they had to eat less both qualitatively and quantitatively. One of the survival strategies – physical survival – is that people shifted to eating less frequently, missing meals, going to bed early so they don’t feel the hunger, and so on.


There is also the question of social survival. People start to reduce social duties, like gifts, visits and no’out [collective monetary gifts from community members to people getting married] in weddings. These are important things, psychologically.

There is an unconditional glorification of the genius of the Egyptian people, for example, with the saying that “the clever woman can spin with a donkey’s leg.” There are nationalistic discourses, but also academic ones, that glorify social networks and social capital, in how they support people. Social networks and support are not automatic. They have conditions. They are not informal. I prefer to call them unofficial. These [arrangements] have rules and structures, and key to them is reciprocity. Social networks are based on the rules of exchange, give and take. No’out are a debt, that is written in a notebook that gets inherited. It is not informal at all. For example, if it is someone’s wedding and they give me no’out, it is a big problem to not reciprocate. Not going to the wedding is a problem too. It means that I lose my credit worthiness. In order to enter a gam’eyya [a collective payment and saving mechanism among a group of people], or borrow money, or benefit from networks, you need credit worthiness. You need to have a history of commitment to these rules. To default on social obligations becomes a big problem. It means that your social belonging is weakened, and it is this that guarantees your membership in these networks.

I see indicators of similar behaviors now.

Tawfik, “Oh generous God, please fix this”

Naira Antoun: This thing of losing credit worthiness makes sense if there is overall stability, but what about exceptional moments when the whole network is hurt and no one is able to fulfill the norms of reciprocity?

RS: This is a research question. Social institutions can be unexpected. Maybe the opposite [of the expected collapse of the network] will happen. There will be a fear of the collapse of the network and hence more effort is made to safeguard it. We don’t know.

But there is an influence on social relations, and we see that in the pressure put on domestic units between men and women. Men, whose formal role is the breadwinner, are not able to provide for the home, and this creates tensions.

On a side note, every time they raise the price of cigarettes, I see something. Raising cigarettes prices is so legitimate, as you collect more tax and put it into healthcare, but it has a big impact in terms of feelings of oppression and impotency for some men. Working-class men who smoke, and who put the weight on their shoulders into the cigarette they smoke, are always under attack at home from their wives for wasting money on cigarettes. It is perhaps the only guilty pleasure they have and the only time they relax. With rising cigarette prices, they are left with the oppression and humiliation of not being able to afford it. And how will they express that?

Then there are things done to increase revenues in the home, like selling assets, women selling their gold and becoming the one who is spending on the household.

NA: But gold is also a form of insurance for women, so the moment she sells it she loses that safety net.

RS: Her vulnerability increases, and so the pressures increase. One of the decisions often made in terms of bringing money in is the other face of dropping out of school: child labor. If we want to ask how people cope, child labor is one of the answers. And child labor, of course, is associated with a lot of social ills.

NA: Let’s go back to a basic question that you’ve alluded to: the dangers of labeling coping mechanisms as resistance.

RS: Weapons of the weak and everyday peasantry resistance are different to coping. Coping is about people having their back to the wall and trying to survive. But of course we can’t stop ourselves from asking: Why did they bear this? The question is natural. Why did they cope? This is how you question resistance. What are the conditions that make people resist?

Then there is the romance of resistance, which Lila Abu-Lughod wrote about, the tendency to glorify or find resistance in acts that are not resistance. It is complicated. There is a difference in the possibility of effective resistance between workers and farmers. Workers can undertake spectacular resistance. When there existed means of traditional resistance, not everyday forms of resistance, they were effective.

Yasmine M. Ahmed: I had a problem when I was doing my PhD with terms like resistance, mobilization and struggle. I was trying not to use these terms, mainly because I never heard people I worked with using them. In the literature on resistance, you find it meaning that you don’t want to live close to the state. You want to be autonomous and have your own system. I didn’t find that at all. I found the opposite.

I was working on a different moment [the mid-2000s], one where people had a lot of hope that governments could do something for them. For example, the number of people receiving subsidies was increasing. At the beginning of my fieldwork 600 families were receiving subsidies, and at the end the number doubled. People were fighting about the quality of the rice and other commodities. There was no resistance to the institutions of the state. People felt that they were entitled to demand rights.

NA: Yasmine, you spoke about how people talk about the state as absent, but at the same time rely on it. To what extent do you think people will be making claims on the state and directing their anger at the state or elsewhere, such as at greedy traders raising prices?

YA: What was key during the time I was looking at it was that people had the names of officials in charge and were aware of who signed what. They also had classifications of these officials, as in who was a part of the National Democratic Party and who was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The idea was that the government is neglectful and that officials are accountable. Also, it was a time when there were elections and politicians wanted to show that they had connections, and that they were trying to improve the situation. There was the MP who would make moves on a certain case and the MP who comes and goes, whom people saw as problematic: the MP who just showed up and distributed goods was expected to do more. This was a particular moment. Now, I think the expectation is that the government is completely dead.

RS: I have a half-baked thought that may sound weird. November 3 was very weird. It wasn’t a surprise. We knew. Prices were rising, and, when the flotation of the pound was announced, nothing happened. I felt that the people acted with a certain maturity. I felt maturity coming from a general feeling across classes and regions of the gravity of the situation. It is a specific somber kind of silence. This is a moment when nothing happens, as opposed to people taking to the streets and making demands. [I felt the general sentiment was] “Let this pass and we will talk later, not now.”

This cannot be defended academically, and I don’t have persuasive arguments. I am just smelling it. A vulgar version of it would be a sense of national responsibility, one toward the nation. What I will do with the state, the government and the regime will have to wait. People are asking: Are we still hanging on to the cliff or have we fallen? People are touching themselves to make sure they are still alive. It will take a couple of months to realize that we are okay and then look for the son of a bitch who pushed us into the hole. I feel this silence and vacuum is palpable, and there is a reason for that. If we know that reason, we will understand a lot of things. We need to be sensitive to reactions.

An audio work by Kinda Hassan

NA: People expected it, as you say, but could the silence be one of shock, despite the expectation? In the last few years, people heard different stories, plans, conspiracies and lots of talk. But they didn’t expect their daily life to change suddenly.

RS: Of course. People woke up in the morning poorer, much poorer. Sometimes when things are too big, people don’t believe they will happen and bank on the fact that they may be averted at the last minute. They delay taking about it.

LA: What are the questions we should be asking in trying to understand what happened? What questions and answers can replace the stereotypes that tend to fill the gaps of knowledge? I ask this in relation to your observation, Reem, on the silence. When the flotation happened, people started talking about the revolution of the hungry, without understanding how it could happen and why and under what conditions. Are there conditions that make the revolution of the hungry possible? Is that a question we should ask in the first place? What are more important possible questions and approaches to answering them, in order to break these ready-made narratives?

In relation to that, Naira’s earlier note on people’s engagement with the state and Reem’s on silence: I am interested in the relation of people to the state, especially after the revolution and the range of expectations they have from it, up until it reaches the state of complete loss of hope and despair. Are people not revolting because they feel the authorities are incapable?

RS: Or not worth resisting.

LA: Exactly. And that takes us back to resistance. Are we looking at resistance as a failure of coping? Out of despair? I can’t do anything so I resort to a state of refusal and resistance? Or it is coming from an earlier stage, where hope is embedded within it, and it has manifestations in spectacular acts of resistance, like the farmer who comes to the city with his papers and petitions and notes? This is different to the state of despair and hopelessness.

RS: I think there was a moment, on the part of the state, of relief that the decision was passed and they couldn’t hear the sound of silence. I would worry if I were them. Poor guys. You throw a needle on the ground and you can hear the sound. I also find it difficult to think about authority as homogenous or as a core.

This is a good time to bury the idea of the revolution of the hungry or maybe to address it head on. What do we mean by it? Who is afraid of it? Who will participate in it? On January 18 and 19, 1977, nobody was calling them “bread riots.” I see this kind of intifada not as the result of physical hunger, but of the humiliation of hunger. This is very important. This is humiliation. The anger is at how people are being starved and not hunger. Resistance is not on the same spectrum as coping. It is on a different register. Coping is something I do for myself. And as I said before, not every time I make you hungry does the possibility of resistance increase. Resistance or the revolution or anger does not necessarily arise just because of sudden or direct impoverishment.

Bassem Youssri, It’s Not As Easy As It May Have Seemed to Be (2012).

The revolution of the poor is more a concern from the people scared of al-shaab [the people], in its negative sense. Let’s use the term hizb al-kanaba [the couch party] for them, because it is useful. They are the urban middle class. They have no life experience and learn what they know from television and particularly the pre-packaged capsules of talk shows. These are dangerous people. They don’t have life experience. They don’t read, and they are loud. Poorer people may not be reading, but have a lot of life experiences. The intellectual elites read. These guys, instead, are sitting down doing nothing, and their dealings with other people are limited to the cleaning lady, the doorman and the taxi driver.

Jenifer Evans, Couch Party

YA: Linkages become creative. The woman banker who was killed became all of a sudden associated with the floating of the pound.

RS: On January 29, 2011, the difficult night of the security vacuum [during the revolution], a relative of mine called me. She said to me: “What did you do? We are closing ourselves in. The human wave is approaching. They are coming close.” There is always this imagination that the unknown and the dangerous lie in these low-income places neighboring the middle-class areas.

This fear of the descending human wave is not separate from the fear of the revolution of the hungry. But it is not just a representation of the imaginary of a certain group of people. We have to take it seriously. There is real hunger, not a rumor. January 2011 was a revolution of the middle class and also a revolution of the poor. There is always an attempt to classify. You had the chic revolution, and, now, there is a big ghost that is still coming [the revolution of the hungry].

YA: This woman who spoke about the human wave probably thinks that the revolution of the hungry will come as a result of the January revolution.

RS: Yes. The relation of all of this to security is important. People who are scared of the security vacuum are less so now, compared to 2011 and 2012. Fear is a weak weapon. You can use it, but it quickly becomes blunt. It gets normalized into something else.

What we saw with the dispossession of the land and the rental law, which began with some resistance, became normalized in fights between people. Instead of blocking roads, I block the irrigation channels to my neighbor and take the water away from him. We fight over the water and commit petty thefts. Are we going to see something like this?

I don’t know if we have access to objective rates of crimes. If these records exist, it would be very interesting to do some criminological work over time. It would be interesting to get crime rates and map them against the feeling and expression of fear at different times. I feel it won’t be proportional. I feel that crime is a weapon used to create fear by exaggerating reporting on crime and making you feel that it is happening everywhere. Will there be more crime? I don’t know. What will happen to drug use? Will there be new forms of more dangerous and cheaper drugs? That would be interesting to look at.

LA: It would be interesting to document the series of measures, the give and take by the state around the decision of the currency flotation. It might be interesting to trace these measures and the extent to which they respond to certain popular reactions. But then the state’s traditional way of understanding people, from which it accordingly formulates policy, is translated into strict demographic categorizations, like what the youth want, what the pensioners want, etc.

RS: Those ruling us received all their training on a simulator. They have no expertise on society. They get surprised and frustrated. They push buttons and what happens is not what is written in the catalog. Not only do they lack political experience, but also life experience. There are no apparatuses reaching out to society, including the bureaucracy, which belongs to society more than it does to the state. At the end of the day, we are talking about a society. We need to be ready to be surprised. We don’t know what people will do. It is also important to differentiate. Are we asking for philosophical reasons as academics? Are we asking for political reasons, in order to think of how to move? If the government is listening, what will they do? These are different questions.


LA:  One of the things we as Mada missed doing, even though we have the edge of being faster in production as opposed to academics, is capturing the sentiment on that day.

RS: We are still in this moment. There is something in the relationship between the short-term and long-term effects of a big decision. Politicians want to know the influence on that moment, but the long-term is important: the influence of this decision on literacy, anemia, on society in that sense, the infrastructure of the nation, the body. Someone has to put indicators and watchdogs to measure these effects. They are playing with the foundation of underdevelopment, of degradation of life.

In teaching and in everyday conversation, I find it impressive that people take a bit of time to trace the relation between food and agriculture. The relation between vegetables, agriculture and farmers is blurred. The relation between the expensive vegetables you buy and the poor conditions of farmers is absent. There is a deep crisis, the building blocks for which were put in place during Mubarak’s rule: They are the infrastructure of impoverishment.

Naira Antoun 
Yasmine M. Ahmed 

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