Deposed president Hosni Mubarak and his son, Gamal, the onetime heir apparent, are still the most hated men in Egypt, but just behind them is the billionaire industrialist, Ahmed Ezz. Most Americans cannot name the heads of U.S. Steel, ExxonMobil, or IBM, but Egyptians do know Ezz, and many can make the connection between his power and wealth and their own suffering.
Egypt is a culturally conservative society. Young people delay marriage, just like our grandparents and great-grandparents did in the West, until they have spent years saving up to acquire new housing and to fully furnish it. They patiently will buy items like lamps, or dinner settings, one by one, year after year. During my recent stay in Cairo, my friend Morqos Girgis, a young lawyer, explained to me that he and his fiancee have a five-year plan to prepare their new household; they expect to spend $33,000 for an apartment in the Shubra neighborhood, and another $25,000 to furnish it.
In a good month, Morqos (his first name means Mark) may earn $1300. He and his fiancee keep their expenses down by continuing to live with their respective parents, but they will still need to save at a superhuman level to be able to marry before they are 30.
Ahmed Ezz was the head of the Ezz-Dekhela Group, a government-protected near monopoly that by one estimate controlled 60 per cent of the steel rebar business in Egypt. Morqos explained: “Ezz maintained artificially high prices for his steel, which raised the cost of housing. So we have to wait much longer to marry than our parents and grandparents did.”
Morqos added that Ezz did not keep a low profile during the Mubarak era. “Ezz was a visible, outspoken member of parliament,” he said. “He made it clear he had contempt for the Egyptian people, that he felt he was better than we are.”
In September, Ahmed Ezz was sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption.
A century ago, during the Progressive Era, Americans challenged the large business corporations that damaged their lives. Today, there was scarcely a whisper of criticism in the United States until the Occupy Wall Street movement, which credited Tahrir Square as one of its inspirations. The revolutions in Egypt and in the Arab world are having an impact beyond their borders.