Interview with Dr. Samer Soliman, June 6, 2011. Interview conducted by Dr. Warigia Bowman, Assistant Professor, American University, School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
Samer Soliman is a Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo. He is also a founding member, and a member of the facilitating committee of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. He is currently being encouraged by close advisors to consider a run for the Egyptian Parliament, but has not made up his mind.
W: Where are you from in Egypt?
S: I am from a middle class family. Both of my parents were teachers. I am from a neighborhood called EEbaasir. (sp?) which is a neighborhood near downtown Cairo located near the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. I attended the Egyptian French School. I did my undergraduate studies in the Faculty of Economics at Cairo University, my masters in Sociology at American University in Cairo, and earned my doctorate in Paris at the Sciences Po.
I grew up in a politicized family. Many people in my family were interested in or engaged in politics. I was raised in a secular family. My family was Christian, but secular. My mother is religious. My father was a communist.
W: Is there a difference in the way which Christians and Muslims view politics in Egypt?
S: They may view politics slightly differently. At the time of the July Regime, in 1952 most people in Egypt were apolitical. Egyptians were encouraged to support parties, but never to participate. Lately, a sectarian spirit is increasing in Egyptian society. I was never raised as a Copt. I was raised as a nationalist, in a secular home, that was somehow leftist.
It was not until university that I began to discover my Christian identity. I fell in love with a Muslim girl. It was leading nowhere. Your options in Egypt, if you are a Christian man are to convert to Islam or to emigrate. The society does not accept for Christian men to marry Muslim women.
Until university, I had never experienced discrimination as a Christian. In time, I understood the intensity of the sectarian issue in Egypt. My mother had told me there is discrimination, but I had not personally experienced it [until the time of my romance] In the army, I understood the sectarian issue. It is a corrupt institution based on wasta. They ask you when you come in, do you have wasta? It was astonishing.
W: Tell me about your experiences in the Army.
S: I served in the Air Force in the early 1990s, 1991/2. The Army, like armies all over the world, is very paternalistic. Discrimination is very strong against the poor and uneducated. More than anything else, upper Egyptians are discriminated against especially. People would make fun of them, tease them, harass them about their accent. [If you are Upper Egyptian and wealthy and have wasta you are okay. ] The worst thing is if you are Upper Egyptian and are also poor.
The Army was a rich experience for me. I got in deep touch with the peasants, uneducated peasants from deep in the Egyptian countryside. [It was an amazing social education.] There is strong solidarity among soldiers with regard to the big monster, the institution of the military. We were not given any deep lessons about national security. The enemy here is Israel. Also, you learned to shoot. . . .
W: Where did you serve? Where were deployed?
S: Mainly, I was deployed in a military base near the airport (Heliopolis)
W: What was the career path like for you? What was it like graduating from college in Egypt in the early 1990s?
S: Well, I was clear about my intentions. I wanted to work in journalism and research. I spent two months at a news paper El Gom Horeya. When I finished with the army I joined a center as an economic researcher. I then joined a French Language newspaper. I spent some years doing my masters at AUC in parallel to my job. I got a fellowship to Lausanne University in Switzerland, and then to Sciences Po. My first book was on the politics of state finance. It was published in Arabic. It was recently republished in English by Stanford University Press. I came back to AUC with my doctorate in hand. I knocked on the door of political science, and told them I was here, and ready to teach. I had a diploma in African Studies, so my first class was teaching African political economy.
W: As an American, it has really struck me how incredibly hierarchical Egypt is. Can you comment on that?
S: Egypt is very hierarchical. You can notice it from titles. You can see how people deal with the poor: they are nobodies. For example, at the Opera, it is not permitted for a man to wear a Galabeya, a traditional Egyptian outfit. You have to wear a tie. This is a shame. [The Galabeya] is a traditional Egyptian outfit. Simple people are intimidated by the educated people.
Before 1952 we essentially had a fascist system in Egypt. No single worker, no single small peasant could be elected in Parliament. By the 1950s and 1960s, society had become more egalitarian. Yet, there is increasing economic inequality. The poor are in actuality absent from the Egyptian Parliament. There is no one in the last Parliament who you could really call a worker, except for perhaps Abdel Aziz Shabaan, who was a worker and an activist.
In addition, it is socially not acceptable currently in Egypt to marry between classes. I noticed when I went to Europe to study that the spaces in the public sphere were not so divided between classes. Egypt is a very segmented society. It is even physically segmented by class.
W: What does it mean to be born a peasant in rural Egypt? What is the life trajectory of that kind of person? What opportunities do they have?
Social mobility is very weak in Egypt. This is particularly the case with the degradation of education. Education is becoming privatized. Increasingly, people go to private schools, private universities. There is a declining investment in education in Egypt. Nasser extended education to include the poor in Egypt. With this extension, quality suffered. In the last years of Nasser, and under Sadat, enormous resources were spent on the military, particularly during the war of 1973. Huge efforts were given to the Army. No special interest or focus was given to education during this time.
Take the Egyptian budget as a political document. Look at expenditures on security, education, health. There has been a complete degradation of salaries of teachers. They must depend on private tuition to make ends meet.
All public services have suffered, including health care. The Mubarak era was characterized by decay in the public sector, Foreign aid has never been instrumental in any country for economic development. Let’s say, just using very rough, very rough numbers, that the Egyptian budge is 400 billion Egyptian Pounds. 200 million Egyptian pounds comes from the US in terms of economic aid, and about 6 billion pounds for military aid. Of course, there are also off budget expenditures.
Put all elements of public infrastructure suffered under Mubarak including public transportation, streets, health care. Our infrastructure is mediocre. This is a financial issue. There is corruption, a lack of legitimacy of public institutions. There is a long tradition of the state in Egypt. During the January 25th Revolution no one wanted to get rid of the state. They wanted to get rid of the ruling government, the regime. People welcomes the Army as a solid institution of the state.
W: Well, our time is coming to an end, but give me a hint about political parties in Egypt.
S: The new parties in Egypt are emerging along an entire political spectrum. Some liberal parties exist. The Free Egyptians by Sawiris. The El Adl justice party is very wealthy, somewhat right wing. It is supported by big businessmen. The poor at this moment, and the lower middle classes do not have good representation. Al Ikhwan [The Muslim Brotherhood] represents them to a certain extent, but it is a right wing party. Our party, the Social Democratic Party, is on the center left. The Socialist coalition is a promising party. It has new blood. I am not sure if it is capable of getting 5000 signatures, but they have a fighting spirit.
Interview was published on June 8, 2011 at the Democratizing the New Egypt blog