There you see how the other half live: they still have lots of cash and for them curbing consumption would be something unthinkable.
The buzz of shoppers and customers in a ‘humungous’, classy shopping mall in Nasr City makes it hard to believe that Egypt is short of money and that the Government is desperately scrambling after international loans.
The shopping trolleys stacked sky-high with goodies that many millions of poor Egyptians can only dream of send a message about this country’s economy.
The products being sold and their prices make this even clearer.
“I hate this place as it is always crowded, but I have to shop here because I can’t buy the things I want anywhere else,” says Raghda Ragab, 35, as she waits her turn to pay in a long queue.
Raghda’s essentials include a French blue cheese that costs LE300 per kilo and black Russian caviar that goes for LE500 per kilo, as well as many very expensive other products. Raghda, who works as a banker, doesn’t bat en eyelid as she hands over LE4,000 for her monthly groceries.
“All I care about is the health of my five-year-old daughter, I’ll pay whatever I have to, to ensure she eats good, healthy, clean food. I know these products cost more than the Egyptian equivalents, but the quality is guaranteed,” she adds.
Raghda is far from being the only Egyptian, who can afford this lavish lifestyle. Meanwhile, a few yards away from this fancy shopping mall, you’ll see the kind of Egyptians – the vast majority of the population in fact – who earn perhaps LE300 per month or even less.
Wage demands have been behind numerous demonstrations and sit-ins since last year’s revolution. People have been calling for fair minimum and maximum wages.
Two years ago, Cairo Administrative Court ruled that the minimum wage should be fixed at LE1,200 per month, but the ruling has never been implemented because of budgetary limitations.
“I have participated in a couple of demonstrations against this social inequality. It is just so unfair that whole families live on less that LE200 per month, while some governmental officials get paid hundreds of thousands per month,” Ali Nour, 29, told this newspaper, as he emerged from a classy restaurant in Zamalek, overlooking the Nile.
Ali is a regular customer at this restaurant. He spends way more on a regular meal and a drink than many families earn in a month.
According to the United Nations, some 40 per cent of Egyptians live below the poverty line and around 14 million people subsist on less than $1 a day, while other estimates suggest that 51 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Yet surprisingly, the Gini index shows that the distribution of incomes in Egypt has improved since the 1980s.
Egypt is ranked as the 90th most unequal country, with a Gini score of around 0.34, where zero reflects total equality and one reflects total inequality. The US is ranked as the 42nd most unequal country in the world with a Gini score of 0.45.
Although he lives and works around Zamalek, Ali, an engineer in a multinational company operating in Egypt, meets “needy people all the time”. Just outside his favourite restaurant, a group of four or five children are usually found hanging around, waiting for “the rich to give them some money or the leftovers from their dinner”.
The same scenario is played out all over the city. One visit to the branded clothes stores in the upmarket Mohandiseen district of Greater Cairo will tell you a lot about the gap in incomes that is becoming ever harder to ignore.
Dalia Metwali says that she has to rush to her car every time she buys something from a fancy store because “beggars descend on me like vultures”. The 21-year-old American University in Cairo student abides by the following philosophy: “I never give them money, because, if I give to one, I have to give to everyone.”
The branded clothes, shoes, handbag, watch and sunglasses worn by Dalia on a typical day at college are worth a fortune – more than LE10,000. She gets very angry when a poor, hungry, desperate street child merely touches her handbag or even shoes.
“There must be a solution,” says a frustrated Dalia. “This is just unfair. I should be able to walk freely in the street and be able to drive my car without having to deal with gangs of beggars at every corner.