Cruel hope: Hanging on to the promise of the good life in Cairo

By HARRY PETTIT

I wish to consider a middle-class life as a kind of hopeful attachment to the future. Much existing research on the middle-class looks at the forms of employment, consumption, education, sociality, and politics that define and enact middle class-ness in the present. However, a middle-class life – and life in capitalism in general – is an intrinsically future-orientated project, in which a sense that there is “more to life than what exists for us in the here and now” is an inherent component (Jackson, 2011, xi). There is always something more to be done, getting a better job, buying a house, or securing a good education for one’s children.

For more and more populations around the world, in both the Global North and South, this forward trajectory is becoming more uncertain (Heiman, 2015; Schielke, 2014). A comfortable middle-class life has become an apparition that stubbornly remains out of reach. It is a promise which is being tirelessly worked for but never quite grasped as the pillars upon which middle-class lives have been built – secure employment, housing, a good education – are being torn down, and the goalposts are being shifted upwards. In recent days we have perhaps witnessed a catastrophic consequence of this sense of slippage and stuckness, as they became redirected towards Trump’s promise to “make America great again” through racism and xenophobia.

However, in this research I rather consider the ways in which individuals hang on to this promise in their daily lives. Lauren Berlant (2011), writing about liberal-capitalist societies in the West outlines how people sustain an optimistic attachment to a “cluster of promises” which are breaking down, such as upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and durable intimacy. These promises keep fulfillment beyond reach but act as a powerful, affective, yet cruel pull upon those who work for them. I expose how this attachment to hope manifests in the distinct context of a declining middle-class in post-Uprising Egypt. For this section of the middle-class, the hope enacted by the 2011 Uprising has long faded. They rely on very different registers of hope. The research is based on ethnographic research conducted between June 2014 and November 2015 with numerous educated un/underemployed young men to find out how they attempted to keep moving towards their aspirations.

One of them is Ibrahim, now 26, whose name has been changed for the purpose of anonymity. Ibrahim had worked hard to achieve a public university education from one of Egypt’s “koleyat el shaab” (faculties of the people), which are infamous for their low-quality and for churning out thousands of “low-skilled” youth prone to unemployment. During university he took part in student activities in which he had to come up with an imaginary start-up. Through this Ibrahim attended a competition at the American University, the most prestigious private university in the country.

Ibrahim developed a passion to become an entrepreneur, and more immediately to obtain an HR job in a “big company”. His aspirations are reflective of new measurements of what it means to live a good life in contemporary Egypt. His parents had attended public universities, and thereafter obtained government jobs and quickly married. However, for Ibrahim the government was no longer an option as it had largely stopped employing in the aftermath of 1990s neoliberal reforms. But this pathway has also become discredited for his generation. He had seen his parents increasingly struggle to afford a comfortable life over the years, and at the same time he has been exposed to the glamour of Cairo’s new modern global economy, to its international companies, its entrepreneurship scene, and its private education which have afforded huge amounts of wealth to some in the country. He wanted to be part of it. Rather than just take a job for money he yearned for a job which had status, and which he was passionate about. He also craved a comfortable life.

Following university, Ibrahim took multiple training courses offering up the skills that promised to secure success in Egypt’s modern private sector, and attended numerous lectures by successful entrepreneurs who told him it was possible for him too. He, along with many others like him, was sold the fantasy that he would one day reach this life if he continued working hard. When I first met Ibrahim he exuded confidence. He would always be talking about the multiple start-up ideas he had in his head, or about something he had learnt during the long hours spent studying about entrepreneurship or English. At that time he would carry around Steve Jobs’ autobiography, posting its inspirational quotes onto Facebook daily. These activities gave Ibrahim a feeling of hope and status compared to others who had accepted a “normal” life. He felt what Miyazaki (2004) terms a sense of “prospective momentum” that he was headed towards the life of his dreams. He was thus interpreting his class position not in terms of where he was, but in terms of where he was headed.

Despite his efforts, two years later Ibrahim remained unemployed. He experienced innumerable disappointments over that time, such as job rejections, failed attempts to find funding, and futile attempts to move abroad. Every experience induced intense feelings of anger and sadness. However, each time he would improve his mood by returning to the optimistic forms upon which he had relied for so long. He would reread about the success of Steve Jobs in spite of adversity, immerse himself in English, and ask God for guidance and help. These practices helped Ibrahim relocate a sense of hope (amal) and power (qowa).

However, when I saw him in late 2016 these repeated disappointments had taken their toll. Depression and apathy had overwhelmed him. He had stopped reading, attending events, and posting positive quotes. He said he did not believe in them any longer, there was no hope. Instead he railed against the wasta (nepotism) and corruption in Egypt that turned powerful, creative youth like him into “slaves who mashyeen fe dowama (walk in whirlpool)”. Ibrahim lit up a cigarette as we talked. I was shocked as this was a habit for which he had previously chastised young men in his neighborhood as a symbol of “surrender”. Smoking, he said, was helping him to forget his troubles.

Thereafter, Ibrahim took an office assistant job in his local area, something he swore he would never do. He was under pressure to start earning money from his family. Ibrahim was unhappy in the job; it was a job for money rather than passion. After a couple of weeks he began posting positive things on Facebook like he had previously, such as: “Life is a #DREAM, in a #Dream you can be whatever you want”. When I spoke to him he told me that the post means that everything is possible, but it will take time he added. It was 50/50 he said. Ibrahim made another plan to start saving money for a start-up, and had started studying English again. He then told me about a session he was going to do for university students in his town, about how to build a start-up secure an HR job. He said giving this speech may help renew his hope, as it would remind him of the “good days when I was very active and enthusiastic about things”.

Ibrahim was unable to let go, to detach from the promise which had caused his intense depression, and which he had come to know as false. It was not the promise he was attached to, but the intimate feeling of hope which they had brought forth. In the absence of alternatives in post-revolutionary Egypt, and in a context in which giving up completely was not an option, Ibrahim had to reenlist in these cruel forms in order to keep going. Most cruelly, he even turned into an active reproducer of them for others who would come after.

Ibrahim’s story signifies the affective lives being enacted for many in Egypt’s middle-class. They are produced by a contemporary capitalist formation that still promises a fulfilling future to all, yet delivers so little to so many. I would also argue that these lives are being increasingly lived out by “middle-classes” around the world, as they continue to retain an attachment to formations which make accessing a dignified life more and more difficult. This will continue to happen unless alternative forms emerge, forms which are not dependent on blaming the other.

 

References

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism, Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2011.

Heiman, Rachel. Driving after Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb. Oakland: University of California Press 2015.

Jackson, Michael. Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want, Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2011.

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Fijian Knowledge. Stanford: Stanford University Press 2004.

Schielke, Samuli. Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration, and Ambivalence before and after 2011. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press 2015.

 

About the author

Harry Pettit is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography & Environment at LSE. His thesis explores the lives of Egypt’s increasing numbers of educated unemployed youth, a population which has recently been termed the “middle-class poor”. He exposes both how this group has been historically fashioned and how its members experience and negotiate their marginal lives. He particularly focuses on the importance of hope as an affection of marginal living, exploring its social life over time, as well as its politics.

Twitter: @HarrygPettit

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