In 1989 Egypt remained under the social, political, and cultural dominance of an elite, a pattern it has retained since pharaonic times. Although the personal, ideological orientation, and cultural values of the ruling class changed drastically after the 1952 Revolution, the gulf between the urban elite and the popular masses remained large. A group called the Free Officers came to power in 1952. The group, which included people such as Gamal Abdul Nasser (former president of Egypt), Anwar as Sadat (also former president of Egypt), and Husni Mubarak (current president of Egypt), played an instrumental role in carrying out the 1952 Revolution. The Free Officers, along with their civilian allies, comprised a strongly nationalistic cadre who believed the former ruling class had betrayed the country's welfare to foreign interests. The Free Officers, many of whom were not from the top social classes, altered the country's structure of wealth and power. But according to some scholars, the Free Officers' policies merely changed the membership of the elite rather than causing its demise.
The prerevolutionary elite rose to their position of power through the country's entry into the world agricultural commodity market in the nineteenth century. The upper classes consisted of the royal family, absentee landlords, professionals, and business people (merchants, financiers, and a few industrialists). A disproportionately large number of foreigners belonged to the elite groups in Cairo and Alexandria. Opportunities for social mobility changed in response to the transformation of the country's economy. A prosperous landowning family, for example, might choose to secure its status by sending one son to Al Azhar University for a career in religion and another to one of the newly established secular universities while encouraging still another to manage the family's estates.
The civil bureaucracy established by Muhammad Ali (1805-49) and elaborated under British hegemony provided a career for sons of middle- and upper middle-class families. It gave employment to the growing number of Egyptian professionals (mostly lawyers, doctors, and engineers) and fueled the expansion of secular education. The government bureaucracy employed the sons of landlords, of prosperous farmers, and of civil servants themselves.
Despite the major social changes in Egypt between 1800 and 1950, the upper-class elite continued to dominate politics in the country. The educated middle class increasingly resented the elite's control of government. This resentment was particularly strong among military officers because their middle-class origins impeded their advancement to the top decision-making ranks. Among these military officers were the Free Officers.
Egypt's new political elite pledged to rid the country of foreign influences and to broaden economic opportunities for the general population. Nasser implemented numerous socialist policies designed to alter the pattern of class stratification. The June 1967 War, however, halted government initiatives for redistributing wealth. Beginning in 1974, the government introduced a series of laws intended to restore and promote private ownership of previously socialized sectors of the economy. These new policies, known as infitah (opening or open door), helped consolidate the class structure. In 1989 Egypt continued to be a country with a skewed distribution of wealth; about 2,000 families had annual incomes in excess of ŁE35,000 while more than 4 million people earned less than ŁE200.
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