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What are the socio-cultural dimensions behind the phenomenon of harassment? (5)

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Farid Zahran

Farid Zahran

Slums, according to our definition as outlined in the four previous articles, are characterised by a largely poor and marginalised population, a lack of services and the absence of prior planning. The neighbourhoods are often newly built and also have a newer social composition. This has resulted in an inundation of the slums on one hand, and a break in the values of middle classes and their simultaneous ‘slum-isation’ on the other hand. In this article, we will attempt to describe the way in which the state dealt with what it considered the danger of the slums in the period preceding 25 January.

We will notice at the beginning that the state was mindful of the spread of the slums but dealt with them at the beginning through denial. Walls were constructed around some neighbourhoods located on various roads so as not to draw the attention of the elite driving by in their luxury cars. This denial reflected an attempt by some senior officials to evade responsibility for the existence of these neighbourhoods, but the move meant much more than that; it is like a patient denying his illness in fear of confronting the reality of his pain, who then collapses. The denial was almost a fear of confronting the problem or an attempt to flee from it. However, the problem did exist, and various state institutions needed to deal with it. How did they do so?

Because the slums are “very bad”, some elites called for their eradication. The word ‘eradicate’ was understood to mean burning or destroying them, or at least displacing their population to other areas far from their view and the view of tourists, or perhaps back to the cities and villages from which they came.

It is sad that some people acting in good faith and those affiliated with the left who were appalled at the “savage” classist view actually defended the slums. They did not content themselves with saying that the slums ‘weren’t bad’ but went so far as to praise them and considered them a highlight of humanity and the advancement of civilisation!

And to further highlight the paradox, let’s discuss poverty. We hate poverty and hope to eliminate it completely; Omar ibn al-Khattab once said, “If poverty were a man, I’d kill him.” But does eliminating poverty mean eliminating the poor? Or in other words, does hating poverty mean hating the poor? We hate poverty because it distorts people, their bodies, and their minds, and undermines their humanity. Defending the poor to us has one meaning, which is eliminating poverty or eliminating the causes that lead to poverty. This does not imply the lie that poverty is a great thing or that the poor are very happy. Despite any good intentions, giving legitimacy to the continuation of poverty through false claims is negative, and this idea was perpetuated by Arab films that presented the poor as happy and the wealthy as miserable.

Similarly, slums are ‘very bad’ and we want to eradicate them.

The state, as we mentioned, first dealt with the slums by denying them.. This  could reflect escapism or a fear of confronting the issue, or perhaps, and this is the most likely reason, that along with the denial – or let us say instead in confirmation of this denial – the state build walls around the slums at times, especially if these slums formed an eyesore. At times the walls were built without disturbances or major confrontations with residents or human rights advocates. Other times, also in confirmation of this denial, the state effectively locked neighbourhoods and declared a siege, partially and successfully prohibiting residents from leaving their neighbourhoods except to work, sometimes employing a system of permits! Yes, for many years the helpless and downtrodden –not the Pashas– working in Sharm El-Sheikh received permits to enter South Sinai due to fears of terrorism, and any person from a slum appearing in an up-scale or middle-class neighbourhood was vulnerable to arrest. I recall in this regard that some of my staff whose identification cards were issued from slums or governorates in Upper Egypt that were tainted by terrorism at that time were arrested for a few days “under suspicion” only for the fact that they were walking in respectable neighbourhoods without sufficient justification from a police officer’s perspective, who also carried an identification card issued from the slums! When I went to the police station to release these prisoners and it appeared from my actions and words that I did not agree with the officer’s behaviour, he asked me stunned: “Okay but why are you upset? …Why do we do all of this? Is it not for your sake?” The issue came to a point where, from the perspective of security forces, that youth residents of these slums could not walk in certain neighbourhoods without risking arrest.

Before the 25 January Revolution a few years ago, the inundation of the slums and the collapse of the socio-cultural patterns of the middle class reached a peak. The state’s grip began to slip under various pressures, and radical Islamist groups became active in the slums and caused even more chaos. In light of these circumstances the slums began to rebel. How? This rebellion took two forms, the first of which were the series of unfortunate events that began with the death of a resident of the slum within a police station or a police checkpoint during a beating or torture, and ended with the residents of the neighbourhood attacking the police station or checkpoint in a bloody battle resulting in the passing of a number of victims. The second took the form of what is known as group sexual harassment which took place during holidays.

If we look at the two forms of rebellion, we see that the first is against the police, who confronted the danger of the slums through one single method and that is oppression.  Thus it was logical for the slums to explode in the face of the security forces at any provocative, exceptional, or direct reason like the death of a resident in a police station. The second reason encompassed more than one significance, the first of which being that the youth of the slums visited the affluent neighbourhoods they were familiar with during holidays, and by that we mean the downtown neighbourhoods as they are not familiar with the gated communities spread along Cairo’s outskirts. More specifically, this formed an escape from the prison or siege imposed on them, perhaps because the grip of security forces would not be quite so strong during holidays. Sexual harassment itself, and at this specific level of intense violence perpetrated on women and girls, goes back to the psychology of the oppressed seeking to conquer something weaker. Women, in the oppressed and deprived human imagination, are considered a weaker party, and this increases the attractiveness of the women as a target for violence in light of an already-present distorted cultural malice. This is especially true if this woman belonged to what a repressed person views as a higher social class, a women that could has been, and still is, the target for all hostile energy of besieged, deprived, and marginalised harassers who do not have any socio-cultural value system to deter these aggressive energies.

As for how the slums can be developed, that will perhaps be the subject of a future article, God-willing.

About the author

Farid Zahran

Farid Zahran is a publisher and writer. He is the co-founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party

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