The Labor of Hope
Meritocracy and Precarity in Egypt
Harry Pettit



ON A HOT JULY EVENING, Gamal and I were walking along Qasr al-Nil Bridge toward Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo. Gamal had graduated from Cairo University’s Faculty of Law five years earlier. Once a prestigious department producing Egypt’s highest-ranking judges, in recent years it has become colloquially known as one of the “faculties of the people” (kulyat al shaʿb), due to its ever-increasing volume of students and low-quality education.1 Many graduates can now be found not in the law courts but working as taxi drivers or serving shawarma sandwiches in the city. Gamal, like many of his friends, did not want that life. He dreamed of escaping what he described as a crowded, decrepit lower-class to lower-middle-class neighborhood in northeast Cairo and inhabiting another kind of life and city. He imagined working as an international trade lawyer in the glamorous Nile City towers, a modern office block on the banks of the Nile, living in one of the newly built gated communities on the city’s outskirts, marrying a European woman, and eventually moving abroad to work in London.

For the last few years Gamal had worked hard to realize this dream. While intermittently taking freelance family law cases and working in a clothing shop to earn money, he optimistically and intensively developed his English, studied international trade law on the internet, earned a master’s degree at Cairo University alongside courses in CV writing and interview techniques, and obtained unpaid work experience. Gamal was repeatedly told by course trainers and people working in law firms that he would make it eventually if he worked hard enough. I had been following Gamal and other young male graduates like him over the last year as they chased this dream. They took low-end jobs in the hope of securing promotion, attended training courses and job fairs, submitted CVs to prestigious companies, relentlessly planned their dream start-up, read self-help literature, prayed to God for guidance, sat in cafés talking about their ideal future, hung out in shopping malls imagining what they wanted to buy, and attempted to sustain intimate relations with women. These activities all stimulated intense hope, the sense that their ambitious globalized dreams were drawing nearer.

But for Gamal, this all remained a long way off. Over the years he had experienced many false starts, holding three unpaid positions in small law firms before leaving each due to broken promises of a forthcoming salary, struggling to even receive answers from countless scholarships and jobs to which he had applied, and experiencing heartache every time a European woman he had started dating left Egypt and ended things. Each moment Gamal thought he was on the cusp of mobility, it proved an illusion. These disappointments induced much anguish, angry rails against corruption in the labor market and the decrepit state of Egypt’s economy, and even a questioning of God’s presence. Gamal faced incessant calls from his parents to give up, take work, and begin preparations for marriage with a woman in his neighborhood. However, he would not give up. Doing so, he described, would result in “death,” an empty life in which he would have nothing to look forward to. Instead, after each disappointment Gamal distracted himself for a few days with friends, hashish, and television, before moving on to his next attempt, reintroducing hope by focusing on what he had done wrong and what he might do differently now in order to secure God’s reward for his efforts.

On this July day, Gamal was continuing his attempts to partake in Cairo’s global city. We had been hanging out at an open event at the Cairo Opera House for the end of Ramadan. As we walked along the bridge in good spirits, Gamal excitedly told me about an internet search earlier that day identifying an international law course in the UK. But our conversation was interrupted when we came across a group of men staring anxiously into the water below. A man had just jumped. As we looked out over the edge trying to spot him, we were told that the body had disappeared. After waiting a few minutes for the police to arrive, we walked on. I said it was sad to think of someone being driven to kill themself. “Of course, it is sad,” he replied, “but it is weak, to do something like that is giving up, you have to withstand the tough circumstances like I am doing.” Gamal assumed the man had jumped because he could not tolerate Egypt’s labor market. I replied that I knew of young men in similar situations to Gamal who had talked of suicide. “But they can find a job!” he responded in shock, “then move out and rent a flat, they just need independence, like me. They will make it . . . you know there is a phrase in Egypt, ‘the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step,’ you just have to take the step and keep going. You need to be positive; you need to keep hope.”

In this same spot back in 2011, nearly one thousand Egyptians, mostly men, died at the hands of Egypt’s security forces as millions marched to demand an end to the thirty-year rule of Hosni Mubarak. Egyptians generally recall with great nostalgia the feeling they experienced during those days. It was hope, a feeling that their country and thereby their own lives were once again moving toward a fulfilling future. This hope demanded “bread, freedom, and social justice” (aish, huriyya, w ʿadala igtimaʿiyya), the overhaul of a system that was denying access to a dignified life for so many. Those who died were held up as martyrs who had sacrificed themselves for the security of that hope. But now several years on, Gamal’s interpretation of another who died in the same place was quite different. His was not a heroic act of defiance against an unjust system but an act of weakness. He was blamed for refusing to hope, to persevere with the belief that his efforts would be compensated within Egypt’s current economic landscape. Instead, it was Gamal’s individualized stoicism and refusal to give up that secured respect.

This book examines how Gamal and other young men like him struggle to keep on going within conditions that strip them of the ability to lead a livable life. They belong to a middle-class group in contemporary Egypt that lives with a disconnect between their globalized aspirations and their inability to obtain secure work, get married, and afford a dignified lifestyle. This disconnect emerged on the back of late-twentieth-century neoliberal reforms that enabled a select few to accrue vast wealth—as symbolized by the exclusive gated communities, glitzy shopping malls, securitized office blocks, and expensive private educational institutions that sprang up around Cairo. At the same time, many in the middle class whose status had been built on the country’s state-socialist project have been pushed into low-quality state education and un- or underemployment, forced to watch Cairo’s glamorous construction from afar.

Once I began following the lives of young men like Gamal, I became interested in the fluctuation of their emotional states. This emerged as key to explaining how they kept going within an economic system that denied them access to what they desired. They frequently descended into anxiety, boredom, and despair as the labor market stalled their pursuit of a desirable career and durable intimacy. But they also constantly managed to overcome these emotions by engaging in certain activities that provided brief distraction and relief, as well as a vital sense of hope for the future.

Maintaining hope is key to forging a livable life. Egypt’s uprising and the period that followed briefly provided renewed hope for the future. This rested on the promise of tackling the structural conditions that produce inequality, poverty, and precarity. However, as I spent time with young men like Gamal years later, this hope felt remote. They were investing in the hopes generated by a neoliberal economic regime that entrenched itself over the turn of the millennium. They craved a private-sector career, modern consumption, and international mobility, and their hope rested on objects, narratives, and practices that, in Gamal’s words, turned revolutionary martyrs into cowards, establishing the individual as the determinant of success.

In tracing how young middle-class men sustain a livable life, this book reconsiders key approaches to understanding the everyday emotional politics of contemporary capitalism. The condition of Egypt’s middle class is not unique. Globally populations are grappling with a simultaneous diminution of employment pathways as a result of neoliberal economics and work precarity, alongside a structural raising of aspirations in the context of globalization, expanding education, and technological advancement. This is producing widespread feelings of anxiety, frustration, and despair. In recent years scholarship has responded by tracing how marginalized communities enact alternative hopes, through either overt resistance or sustaining life seemingly outside capitalist regimes of value. But this focus sidelines the empirical reality that, despite the production of disconnection and precarity, most people continue to invest in the hopes and dreams offered by capitalist systems.

Understanding why this is happening requires examining the politics and political economy of emotion and hope. It requires tracing how harmful capitalist systems continue to produce the means for disenfranchised populations to keep going. This book does this by considering the everyday practices through which young educated underemployed men in Egypt keep going not as resistance or agentive survival but as a form of emotional labor that enables the labor market to keep functioning despite producing inequality and precarity. This labor is made up of gendered practices that produce temporary distraction from difficult emotions and sustain a vital sense of hope for future mobility. By retaining a meritocratic focus on the individual and away from structural issues, this emotional labor, or labor of hope, keeps men invested in Egypt’s capitalist economy. In intricately tracing this labor, the book argues that the emotional labor required to survive precarity and disconnection represents a much broader reality in contemporary labor markets and a vital terrain of political struggle.


In the 1990s and early 2000s, Egypt was projected as a space of hope. Not only was economic growth strong, but the country was an important signifier for what had been advertised by development organizations, global consultancy firms, the media, and parts of academia as the surge of a new middle class across the Global South.2 In a 2014 report, the German Development Institute concluded that Egypt’s middle class increased by a factor of four from 1990 to 2010.3 The rise of the middle was held up as a sign that countries like Egypt were leaving the “waiting room of history,” finally enjoying everything that globalization, development, and economic liberalization promised to bring.4 It was proof that wealth was “trickling down” and economic growth “sustainable” and “inclusive.”

The events of 2011 abruptly punctured this hope. Development institutions, the media, and researchers claimed that “middle-class frustration fueled the Arab Spring.”5 New economic measurements revealed an alternative story, with a 2015 World Bank report that measured income concluding that Egypt’s middle class shrank in the years preceding 2011.6 A similar story emerged when wealth was measured, which is important as it provides a window into the ability of populations to afford middle-class markers such as education and property. Credit Suisse’s 2015 Global Wealth Report found that Egypt’s middle class—registered as only 5 percent of the population of ninety million—was halved between 2000 and 2015. What was left lost US$7 billion during that period, while those above (0.4 percent of the population) gained US$72 billion.7

Alternative quantitative studies also started puncturing the narrative of a rising middle class elsewhere.8 Credit Suisse’s report revealed declines in middle-class wealth in every region except China after 2000, with the distribution shifting almost universally in favor of those at higher wealth levels.9 As a result of from these statistics, Egyptian commentators, researchers, and international organizations suddenly announced the death of Egypt’s middle class in the early twenty-first century. But to understand exactly how the condition of the middle class changed, it is necessary to go beyond quantitative analysis. The middle class must be understood as an everyday practice and aspirational category for which membership requires certain kinds of jobs, education, taste, family construction, and conduct.10

The label “middle class,” or “middle level” (al-tabaqa al-mutawasita), originates in a late-nineteenth-century Egyptian state-building project initiated by Muhammad Ali to create a bureaucratic workforce out of a secular education system.11 But it was under the presidency of military general Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956–1970) when a huge expansion occurred.12 Nasser increased access to public school and university while guaranteeing every secondary school graduate a government job on the back of a program of industrialization geared toward import substitution and nationalization.13 People who had been working as petty traders, agricultural laborers, and factory workers were lifted into a middle class based on lifetime nonmanual state jobs, state education, material security aided by subsidies and rent-capped housing, and belonging to a national, modernist, and reformist Islamic culture.14 At the same time, Nasser limited the wealth of the pre-1950s elite by sequestering land and restraining their ability to accumulate property and earn high incomes. Although inequalities persisted, Egyptian society underwent a process of socioeconomic convergence during this period.

However, in the 1980s and 1990s Egypt’s socialist developmental project unraveled. President Anwar Sadat (1970–1981), while continuing to expand education and public employment, set in motion discontinuous economic liberalization. In response to a stagnating economy and rising government debt, a series of policies were introduced under the label infitah (opening) to make Egypt attractive to international capital and give the local private sector more freedom.15 Liberalization continued into the twenty-first century as Hosni Mubarak—who became president after Sadat’s assassination—imposed International Monetary Fund (IMF)-led reforms and structural adjustment policies in response to further revenue shortfalls.16 This involved deep austerity measures, reductions in price controls, exchange rate depreciation, further privatization, and a reallocation of expenditure away from welfare and toward the private sector.17

IMF accounts paint a story of low inflation and reasonable growth figures during the 1990s. But Timothy Mitchell argued that this was enabled by speculative financial injections in real estate and importing expensive consumables instead of revived production.18 While economic liberalization promised social mobility, it led to dramatic fissures among the middle classes.19 The bourgeoisie of the pre-Nasser years, the bureaucratic and military strata of Nasser’s reign, and the commercial nouveaux riches rapidly accumulated capital by expanding public-sector incomes, commercial private-sector activities, Gulf migration, and real estate. This accumulation centered on Egypt’s capital and produced new standards of middle-classness based on modern consumer lifestyles, internationalized private sector work, foreign-language education, and global mobility.20 These were imprinted on Cairo’s urban landscape in the shape of international educational institutions, glamorous gated communities, office developments, and shopping malls as part of the government’s ambition to construct a “global city.”21

As the upper-middle classes rapidly accumulated capital, many in the Nasserist middle class faced hardship in the aftermath of the neoliberal transition. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century the ability of many to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, which was increasingly oriented toward modern consumption, diminished because of a steady devaluation of the Egyptian pound, a stagnation of government wages, and a decline in reliable state services and subsidies.22 But it is those coming of age since the early 2000s who have faced the most dramatic rupture in their pathway toward a middle-class life in contemporary Egypt.


The young men who provide the focus of this book constitute part of what I call a disconnected middle class in Egypt. Their grandfathers, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, worked as ceramics traders, farmers, fishermen, barbers, curtain makers, factory workers, coffee shop owners, and tailors. They did not own land and rarely had an education beyond school, signifying membership of the popular classes. But their parents benefited from Nasser’s reforms. Their fathers and sometimes mothers graduated from postsecondary technical education to obtain government jobs such as teachers or train station officials or in the distribution of food subsidies and local tax offices. After obtaining employment, most quickly married and secured a subsidized rental property or built an apartment with parental help.

Some of my interlocutors grew up in Cairo’s “informal” neighborhoods that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s outside government planning as Egyptians migrated from the provinces. While not constituting part of the city’s ʿashwaʾyat (slums), many complained how these neighborhoods had become overcrowded—especially with lower-class people—and dilapidated over the years because of rural-urban migration and chronic underinvestment. These areas are far removed—aesthetically and spatially—from historically elite areas and gated community settlements catering to the new middle classes. Other interlocutors grew up in towns and villages in the Nile delta and beyond that have faced economic decline as industrial bases moved abroad and Cairo swept up new economic activity. Again, these places are compared unfavorably to the capital as they lack employment opportunities as well as consumptive symbols of wealth.

My interlocutors all attended government schools and universities in the early 2000s that have become infamous for overcrowding and poor quality.23 While pupil numbers continued to rise into the twenty-first century, state expenditure on education has decreased.24 At the same time the government facilitated private investment in response to demand for alternative options from the upper classes and the international commercial economy.25 Even public universities have opened fee-paying foreign-language sections. The most notorious faculties are the Arabic sections of commerce, law, and humanities, which make up two thirds of enrollment. They are known as the “faculties of the people,” where people end up if they underperform in the fiercely competitive high school exam and go “just to get a certificate.” My interlocutors graduated from these faculties between 2009 and 2013. Looking back, they complained of being unable to enter lectures because of overcrowding, corruption in grading, and a system where memorization is rewarded and independent thought disabled.

As low-status graduates, the men in this book were especially vulnerable to the employment struggles plaguing educated youth in a liberalizing Egypt. University graduates make up almost half of unemployed youth.26 On average it takes the several hundred thousand graduates who enter the labor market each year seven years to find “gainful employment.”27 The government employment many of their parents enjoyed is no longer available after the state slashed recruitment as part of IMF reforms.28 For these reasons, coupled with growth in capital-intensive sectors like construction and commerce, graduates have been pushed into un- and underemployment, with many men pushed into “informal” jobs and women out of the labor market altogether.29

The employment avenues that remain open make the achievement of middle-class respectability difficult. It is common to find male graduates of the faculties of the people working as outdoor salespeople or taxi/delivery drivers. With the right connections, other options are freelance family law or accounting in small firms, but these jobs often pay less than lower-skilled alternatives. An avenue in Cairo—and key focus in the book—has become sales and customer service roles in a call center or business process outsourcing (BPO) industry that employs 170,000 workers in services for approximately a hundred countries in twenty languages.30 Although it can be highly paid, the BPO industry in Egypt is segmented with international call centers offering salaries three times those of local accounts.31 But most public university graduates can access only local accounts because of language issues. My interlocutors complained that all of these job options do not match the years they spent chasing an education in a particular field. Additionally, they involve working among “uneducated people,” and their small salaries and temporary contracts induce challenges for men in particular to secure marriage, build a home, and look after a family when all three have become more expensive.32

A loss of status through education and jobs means many middle-class youth, including the men in this book, are struggling to distinguish themselves from shaʿby (lower-class) living.33 At the same time, the standards against which they measure themselves have shifted through exposure to the raqy (classy) cosmopolitan lifestyles enjoyed by the upper classes. For my interlocutors, this exposure came through professional skills training inside universities and a thriving training economy, billboards and commercials advertising upper-class lifestyles, online information, success stories of friends or relatives, and fleeting interactions with the upper classes in restaurants or shopping malls. Expectations are no longer funneled through modernist aspirations for guaranteed public sector work. The young men in this book dream of working in multinational or large Egyptian companies, in law, commerce, human resources (HR), public relations, and banking; of becoming successful entrepreneurs; and of migrating abroad. They also want to be able to own cars, send their children to foreign-language private schools, live in exclusive gated communities, and shop in glitzy shopping malls.

Many in Egypt’s middle class are growing up with a widening disconnect between their aspirations for certain jobs, lifestyles, and marriage and the precarious employment and lifestyle trajectories that lie before them.34 This book delves into the lived experience of this disconnect among young men. It builds on ethnographic literature exploring the modern experience of masculinity in Egypt and the wider Middle East. Seeking to undermine damaging stereotypes of the dangerous, oppressive Arab man, this work has given primacy to the ordinary pursuit of manhood—revealing emergent spaces and practices through which men are asserting, struggling to live up to, and reshaping norms of masculinity.35 Young Egyptian women also experience disconnection, in ways that partly overlap but also differ from men. Women are graduating from Egypt’s universities in record numbers and developing desires for international employment and lifestyles. But they face high unemployment amid declines in public-sector work, while their pursuit of jobs is often more circumscribed, with mobility restricted and journeys dependent on locating a husband who can provide a decent lifestyle.36 Although the book focuses on men, at various points I explicate the experience of young women and examine the way their practices impinge on one another.


I understand disconnection as a subjective condition.37 It defines the existence of a gap between one’s aspirations and one’s ability to reach them.38 This condition speaks to a capitalist economy which, as Rachel Heiman described, is producing a dramatic upscaling of aspirations alongside the diminishment of the possibility of achieving them.39 Processes of globalization, urbanization, technological advances, and expanding access to education are exposing people to the lives of the wealthy that were previously not on show. Yet austerity regimes, neoliberal economics, and political instability are producing heightened uncertainty and precarity, making it harder for many to secure a stable livelihood.40

Disconnection is a condition experienced on and through emotion.41 Once I began following the lives of young Egyptian men, I observed the intense fluctuation of their emotional states, between anxiety, boredom, and despair as they became stuck in situations that did not reflect their dreams, and distraction, relief, and especially hope as they engaged in activities that enabled them to overcome these emotions. Control of their emotional states emerged as vital to explaining how they kept going within conditions that diminished their ability to lead livable lives. Maintaining a sense of hope for the future was key to that.42

Hope is defined as a sense that “one may become other or more than one presently is or was fated to be.”43 It rests on motion, what Hirokazu Miyazaki terms prospective momentum toward a desired future.44 It is distinguishable from other terms, in Egypt and beyond, that describe future orientation—such as confidence (thiqa), optimism (tafaʾwl), or expectation (tuwaqa). It defines a more basic sense of having something to live for and work toward. It is also distinct from acts of aspiring or desiring. A desire or aspiration can be an object of hope. Hope therefore can be defined as a sense that a desired future can become yours.

The human need for hope has been the subject of much debate. While philosophical and psychoanalytical approaches have contributed great understanding, it must be contextualized within the systems of value within which people orient their lives.45 Capitalism and modern notions of progress require perpetual investment and growth accompanied by dissatisfaction with what one already has. Even beyond the life stage of youth there is pressure to strive for better jobs, lifestyles, and commodities. This produces, as Samuli Schielke argued, an “aspirational sense of existence, where one must always reach for more than what one has, a sensibility that essentially depends on its being dynamic and growing.”46

The production of disconnection within capitalist systems places this hopeful sensibility under threat.47 It replaces a sense of hope with a sense of feeling stuck in life. The question becomes how do people experiencing disconnection reclaim hope? Existing scholarship has predominantly focused on the emergence of anti- or postcapitalist forms of hope. This has involved philosophical work attempting to imagine more collective, equitable versions of the future, but also a large body of ethnographic work tracing how marginalized communities construct hopes that rest on the possibility of either breaking down capitalist arrangements or forging livelihoods and new social relations outside capitalist regimes of value and accumulation.48

This has been a valuable pursuit, especially as it has taken ethnographic work beyond accounts of stagnation and suffering to demonstrate how disenfranchised groups manage to forge livable lives.49 However, it did not speak to the pursuit of hope I observed in Egypt. Despite experiencing intense rupture, the young men in this book did not turn to anti- or postcapitalist ideologies. They continued to invest in the individualized hopes generated by a capitalist system. They were consumed by the tasks of educating themselves, obtaining fulfilling private-sector careers, maintaining durable intimacy, and building homes. As much as the labor market produced anxiety and anger in achieving these aims, it also constantly offered tools to enjoy brief distraction and to relocate hope through objects, places, and narratives that offered the meritocratic promise of success through individual perseverance.

A careful consideration of these men’s lives highlights two related limitations of the anti-/postcapitalist hope literature. First, it contains the implicit, and often explicit, assumption that dominant political and economic regimes have vacated the material and emotional worlds of marginalized peoples.50 This overlooks the empirical reality that they continue to churn out powerful promises of happiness, and people around the world continue to invest in the imaginations and hopes caught up in these promises. This is not only in relation to nationalist movements that brought about Brexit, the success of leaders such as Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the election of Trump in the United States, Modi in India, and Bolsonaro in Brazil, but also to the stubbornness of the pursuit of good-life fantasies extended by labor and commodity markets. As Lauren Berlant articulated in the U.S. context, people retain a cruel attachment to these fantasies, despite their continual breakdown, because the “continuity of its form provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world.”51

Second, scholarship pins the capacity of marginalized peoples to sustain hope, trick time, hustle, or resist on their agency. This stems from a Michel de Certeau–inspired conceptual approach that differentiates between “confining structures” and “agentive movement.”52 This approach understates how “agentive movement,” or in this case the capacity to hope, might be enabled by dominant material and ideological structures.53 A similar trend is found in scholarship on emotion and affect more generally.54 Theorizations of affect—which have helped recognize how emotions emerge as people interact with the world—largely understands affect to be “non-representational,” and therefore beyond the reach of discourse and ideology. The affective realm is positioned as a realm that represents the contingency of power, within which alternative ways of living emerge.55 Literature does not analyze sufficiently how affects—and emotions as their personal manifestation—emerge and shift in response to dominant ideologies and material arrangements.

To understand the emotional lives of young Egyptian men, I depart from approaches that focus on the emergence of alternative sociopolitical formations amid the ruinations of capitalist systems. Instead, I interrogate a politics and political economy of hope that may work in the service of labor markets. This requires returning to feminist literature on emotion. This literature has revealed how particular “emotional cultures” or “structures of feeling” are produced by dominant economic, political, and sociocultural configurations.56 It also investigates how these emotional cultures can become a critical mechanism through which capitalist relations—and their associated structures of inequality and exploitation—are reproduced and challenged.57

Investigating the politics and political economy of hope therefore requires tracing how dominant ideologies and techniques of governing constrain and enable the possibilities for hope as it emerges and shifts within marginalized communities.58 This does not assume linear subjectification or governance from above. It traces how affects produced by corporate and governmental knowledges and techniques are taken up and reworked in lived experience. It also requires tracing how hope then feeds into the reproduction, legitimation, and potential disruption of modes of capital accumulation and exploitation, and the structures of gendered, sexualized, classed, racialized, and colonial inequality they produce.59


1. Over twenty-five years ago, Walter Armbrust provided a vivid description of the underwhelming swearing-in ceremony of lawyers to the Egyptian bar association, which symbolizes the plight facing Egypt’s public universities. Armbrust, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt.

2. A series of large-scale quantitative studies asserted this using wage growth and consumptive capacity. Ncube and Lufampa, The Emerging Middle Class; Ravallion, “The Developing World’s Bulging (but Vulnerable) ‘Middle Class’”; Kharas, “The Emerging Middle Class.”

3. This measurement was based on those spending between $10 and $100 per day. In 2011, the African Development Bank, using an alternative definition of people who spend $4 to $20 per day, stated that a rising middle class reached 31.6 percent of the population by 2010. This figure rose to an incredible 79.7 percent if the “vulnerable floating middle” (those who spend $2 to $4 per day) was included. African Development Bank, “The Middle of the Pyramid.”

4. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe.

5. World Bank, “Middle-Class Frustration.”

6. This report defined the middle class as those who earn more than $4.90 per day in 2005 terms. It declined from 14.3 percent to 9.8 percent between the mid-2000s and the end of the decade. Ianchovichina et al., “Inequality, Uprisings, and Conflict.”

7. Credit Suisse, “Annual Global Wealth Report.”

8. Wietzke and Sumner, “What Are the Political and Social Implications”; Kochhar, “A Global Middle Class.”

9. This is a damning analysis, and it maps onto Thomas Piketty’s analysis that demonstrates how all but 1 percent of the world’s population has seen real wealth fall or stagnate since the mid-twentieth century. Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century. For evidence of these trends in the Middle East, see Alvaredo and Piketty, “Measuring Top Incomes.”

10. This approach to middle-classness stems from Weberian and Bourdieusian understandings of class, which have been used and complicated in studies of the performance of middle-classness in different contexts of the Global South. Although scholars must be wary about extending the purchase of the concept, research has overcome this issue by applying empirical historical analyses. Lentz, “Elites or Middle Classes?”; Liechty, Suitably Modern.

11. Ryzova, The Age of the Efendiyya.

12. Galal Amin estimated that Egypt’s middle class increased from 19 percent in 1955 to 45 percent in 1986. The middle class in 1986 encompassed families who earned between LE300 (US$420) and LE10,000 (US$14,200) per month, a varied populace incorporating extreme affluence and modest living. Amin, Whatever Happened to the Egyptians, 31–37.

13. University enrollment tripled between 1952 and 1970, while by the early 1980s over half the nonagricultural workforce—and 20 percent of the total—was employed by the state. Richards and Waterbury, A Political Economy. The private sector was limited to land ownership (although a cooperative system monitored and controlled it), buildings (though rents were controlled and heavily taxed), construction, light industry, 25 percent of national exports, and 75 percent of internal trade. The government controlled infrastructure, heavy and medium industry, institutions of foreign trade, and financial operations. Zaalouk, Class, Power and Foreign Capital.

14. Walter Armbrust provided a useful definition of Egypt’s middle class—colloquially labeled el-muwaẓafiyyn (the employees)—during this time: “Middle class does not correlate with a material standard of living. Egyptians who have at least a high school education, and therefore basic literacy and familiarity with how modern institutions work, generally consider themselves middle class. Egyptians who think of themselves as middle class expect a lifestyle free from manual labor. In the media, the ideal of middle class is often associated with modernity, bureaucracy, and office work, and it is portrayed as having a degree of familiarity with an ideology of national identity that seeks to balance local Egyptian and classical Islamic cultural referents.” Armbrust, “Bourgeois Leisure,” 111.

15. By 1975 the public deficit was LE1.3 billion (US$3.3 billion) and the trade deficit was LE1 billion (US$2.5 billion). Zaalouk, Class, Power and Foreign Capital, 55. Government technocrats and a lingering bourgeoisie called for greater space for private-sector activity to aid their business interests and desires for European goods. The state encouraged saving and entrepreneurship by introducing concessions on rent controls, higher wages for some bureaucrats, and tax exemptions on certain company profits. Jankowski, Egypt.

16. The shortfall was due to military expenditure to the United States, defaults on loans to entrepreneurs, and falls in oil prices in the wake of the 1990–1991 Gulf conflict, which reduced migrant remittances. Rutherford, Egypt After Mubarak.

17. Kienle, A Grand Delusion.

18. Mitchell, Rule of Experts.

19. Salem, Anticolonial Afterlives.

20. The lives of this new “upper-middle class” provided the focus for two books: de Koning’s Global Dreams and Peterson’s Connected in Cairo. They fit within a broader body of work revealing how affluent middle-class groups forged new lines of distinction in Latin America, South and East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa on the back of late-twentieth-century economic liberalization. Caldeira, City of Walls; Fernandes, India’s New Middle Class; Zhang, In Search of Paradise; Mercer, Middle Class Construction. Scholarship on the hardship caused by these processes has concentrated on poor populations pushed into the “informal” city and “nonwaged” work. Singerman, Avenues of Participation; Ismail, Political Life; Davis, Planet of Slums. While this produces powerful imagery of divided cities, with the walled off upper-middle-class beneficiaries of capitalist development inhabiting a distinct city from the masses who are deemed “unnecessary” for neoliberal growth, it glosses over more interstitial experiences, and particularly more challenging middle-class lives. Lawson, “De-centering Poverty Studies.” Placing attention on these populations is fruitful as it debunks the core myths of nations becoming more prosperous, fair, and democratic, while also encouraging solidarity between the middle classes and the poor to combat their malign effects.

21. Sims, Understanding Cairo.

22. From the 1970s onward, lagging production and expanding consumption steadily devalued the Egyptian pound. In the mid-1970s the Egyptian pound (LE) was equal to US$2.50. In the mid-1990s this had more than reversed: the dollar was equal to LE3.40. By 2011, the pound had dropped to US$6, before declining after the revolution to over US$8 by 2015—it has since declined even more. The minimum government salary was LE1,200 (US$150) per month in 2014, increased from LE800 before 2011. The lower-middle classes engage in additional activities to supplement salaries—for example, acting as land brokers or engaging in small-business operations outside government employment. These activities provide important funds, sometimes used to invest in land to secure against rising house prices; however, they do not provide a buffer against financial hardship.

23. A UNDP Arab Human Development Report described the education system as providing programs “dominated by didactic not interactive instruction with a drive to install loyalty, obedience, and support for the regime in power, besides being drenched in social inhibitions and religious taboos.” Mehrez, Egypt’s Culture Wars, 101. As a result, a concurrent system of private tutoring has developed, but this is highly differentiated in quality by financial power. In the report, public universities are reported to “lack adequate financial, human and material resources and provide poor-quality education that is at once mediocre, dogmatic and conservative.” Mehrez, Egypt’s Culture Wars, 95.

24. In 2000–2001, 20 percent of the college-age population (ages 17–22) were enrolled in higher education, compared to just 6.9 percent in 1970. De Koning, Global Dreams, 48.

25. Some 110,000 pupils attend nineteen private universities while 1.6 million attend twenty-three public universities. European Commission, Overview.

26. Youth unemployment (ages 15–29) stands at 29 percent (23 percent for men and 53 percent for women). Among Egypt’s 2.3 million university graduates, 34 percent are unemployed, compared to 2.4 percent of those without education. Assaad and Krafft, “Youth Transitions in Egypt.”

27. Amin, “Egypt Country Report.”

28. Those entering the public sector upon leaving university declined from 70 percent to 20 percent between 1970 and 1996. Assaad and Krafft, “Youth Transitions in Egypt.”

29. In Egypt, “informal” employment—without social or legal protections, a contract, or regular wages—has long constituted a major segment of the economy. Among wage workers who have a secondary education, only 42 percent have a formal work contract. Ghafar, Educated but Unemployed. Colloquially, informal often means working in the streets rather than in an office.

30. Egypt has a global BPO market share of 16.9 percent. Brussels Research Group, “Egypt Is Considered.” Some 16 percent of employed youth work in service and sales work, whereas only 6 percent of young men have professional jobs.

31. Anouk de Koning described how a dual labor market emerged in the aftermath of economic liberalization, with internationally oriented sectors that provide wages on average five times those of comparable domestic-facing firms. De Koning, Global Dreams.

32. A 2014 labor market transitions survey found that half of young workers earned between LE500 and LE999, with 25 percent earning between LE1,000 and LE2,999 per month. Barsoum et al., “Labour Market.”

33. The word shaʿby has been used since the 1940s by the media before it came into daily language. Ghannam, Remaking the Modern, 79. It comes from the word shaʿb, which means “people” or “folk” but is distinct from the word balady (local or popular)—or ibn al-balad, which defines an authentic, traditional Egyptian identity. El-Messiri, Ibn al-Balad. After Egypt’s infitah, shaʿby has become a derogatory term to describe the lower classes in middle- and upper-class discourse. There are positive connotations, though, around shaʿby life being “fun.”

34. After the 2011 uprising, Asef Bayat announced the emergence of a young “middle-class poor.” These were people “with high education, self-constructed status, wider worldviews, and global dreams who nonetheless are compelled—by unemployment and poverty—to subsist on the margins of the neoliberal economy as casual, low-paid, low-status, and low-skilled workers . . . and to reside in the overcrowded slums and squatter settlements of Arab cities. Economically poor, they still fantasize about an economic status that their expectations demand—working in IT companies, with secure jobs, middle-class consumption patterns, and perhaps migration to the West.” While he does not speculate as to how large this population might be, various employment, education, and survey data outlined in the previous section gives some insight. Bayat, “A New Arab Street.”

35. Ghannam, Live and Die; Naguib, Nurturing Masculinities; Inhorn, The New Arab Man; Norbakk, “A Man in Love.”

36. See Assaad and Krafft, The Egyptian Labor Market, for discussions on female unemployment.

37. Disconnection is a concept coined by James Ferguson to counter a dominant narrative that globalization, economic liberalization, and new technologies were creating heightened connectivity. Drawing on work in the Zambian copperbelt, Ferguson described disconnection as a material process through which populations are “thrown aside, expelled, or discarded” from dominant circulations of capital and value creation. Ferguson also alludes to disconnection as a subjective condition as he describes how Zambian mineworkers had to come to terms with the withdrawal of the promise of an economic boom. Ferguson, Expectations of Modernity, 236.

38. There are similarities with Ted Gurr’s concept of “relative deprivation,” which describes the discrepancy between what people think they deserve and what they actually think they can get. Gurr, Why Men Rebel. It also echoes other concepts, such as “waithood” or “timepass,” which describe how youthful populations are unable to reach independent adulthood, classed aspirations for a good life, and gendered expectations placed on men or women. Honwana, The Time of Youth; Jeffrey, Timepass; Cole, Sex and Salvation. But I favor the term disconnection, as it foregrounds the gap between aspirations and chances, while not assuming how this is experienced in daily life.

39. Heiman, Driving After Class. Separate literature has explored how capitalist economies are offering up a greater capacity for aspiration, without providing the means to achieving them. Appadurai, Modernity at Large; Weiss, Street Dreams.

40. Disconnection is impacting other middle-class populations. Like Egypt, many postcolonial states created a middle class out of state education and employment to build national identity, drive economic development, and extend political control. Heiman et al., The Global Middle Classes. However, as they underwent economic liberalization, these populations have experienced instability. While education continues to expand, economic changes associated with the spread of market relations, retraction of the state, and expansion of financial and commercial industries have reduced public employment and failed to generate sufficient secure white-collar work. Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism; Boltanski and Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism. Long-term employment has often been replaced by unstable sectors, with BPO industries exemplifying this trend. This has created masses of educated labor stuck in unemployment or employment that does not reflect their skills or provide security. Jeffrey et al., Degrees Without Freedom? A rising youth demographic often exacerbates this problem.

41. Interest in the emotional experience of capitalist relations is indebted to feminist anthropological critique of the Enlightenment’s masculinist focus on individual rationality. This critique revealed that the present is not experienced through “rational” or “conscious” thought processes but rather first and foremost through emotion or bodily affect. Illouz, Cold Intimacies; Lutz, Unnatural Emotions; Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion.

42. Questions persist over whether hope constitutes an emotion itself, a nonrepresentational modality akin to affect, or a belief sustained by affect or emotion. Crapanzano, “Reflections on Hope.”

43. Jackson, Life Within Limits, xi.

44. Miyazaki, The Method of Hope.

45. Ernst Bloch argued that hope is intrinsic to a consciousness formed in anticipation of the future. Bloch, The Principle of Hope. But it is also fueled by a sense of insufficiency, a sense that there is “more to life than what exists for us in the here and now.” Jackson, Life Within Limits, xii. While psychoanalytical approaches relate this to a Lacanian sense of lack, Jacques Lacan understands desire as being fueled by a perpetual sense of lack, a lack of recognition from others. According to this notion, “desire’s raison d’etre is not to realise its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire.” Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies, 38. It rests on separation between the desiring subject and the object that is desired. By contrast, anxiety arises if there is nothing left to be desired.

46. Schielke, Egypt in the Future Tense, 23.

47. Ethnographic work has explicated the intricate temporal and emotional experience out of what Bruce O’Neill in his research with homeless men in Bucharest describes being “cast aside” from the pursuit of a meaningful life based on secure jobs, affordable housing, lasting intimacy, and adhering to hegemonic gender roles. O’Neill, The Space of Boredom; Allison, Precarious Japan; Coleman, “Austerity Futures.”

48. Philosophical work includes Ernst Bloch’s setting up of a dialogue between Christianity and Marxism and David Harvey’s mapping out of a “dialectical utopianism.” Bloch, The Principle of Hope; Harvey, Spaces of Hope. Ethnographic scholarship explicates the practices invoking what Hirokazu Miyazaki terms a “temporal reorientation” of knowledge among marginalized communities. Miyazaki, The Method of Hope, 52; Mains, Hope Is Cut; Pedersen, “A Day in the Cadillac”; Zigon, “Hope Dies Last”; Janeja and Bandak, Ethnographies of Waiting. This has also been framed as temporal agency. Ringel and Moroşanu, “Time-Tricking.” It also echoes a broader trend in ethnographic writing asserting the generative possibilities thrown up by uncertain economic arrangements, in that they engender the adaptive capacity of marginalized populations to engage in resistance or forge livelihoods seemingly beyond capitalist regimes of value and accumulation. Scholars have used terms like “navigation, “improvisation,” and “hustle” to interpret survival strategies. Vigh, “Wayward Migration”; Thieme, “The Hustle Economy”; Cooper and Pratten, Ethnographies of Uncertainty.

49. Walker and Kavedžija, Values of Happiness.

50. Capitalist regimes are said to have vacated the “near future” and started governing in anticipation of endangerment rather than expectation of future progress. Guyer, “Prophecy and the Near Future”; Zeiderman, Endangered City.

51. Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 24.

52. Henrik Vigh’s concept of social navigation (or dubriagem) describes how people “disentangle themselves from confining structures, plot their escape, and move towards better positions.” Vigh, “Wayward Migration,” 419. The words agent, agency, and agentive are used time and again to describe the propensity of people to relocate hope or “trick time” in times of precarity and uncertainty. This work stems conceptually from de Certeau’s differentiation between strategies and tactics. Strategies, linked to institutions and power structures, involve the production of spatial formations, while tactics are used by individuals to navigate environments. De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life.

53. Laura Bear argued that the anthropological focus on ethics ignores the continued production of inequality and accumulation through the temporal and emotional landscapes of capitalist modernity. It needs to be combined with analysis of the knowledges associated with bureaucratic and corporate institutions, and techniques that create new material formations. Bear, “Anthropological Futures.”

54. Distinguishing between emotion and affect originates in the seventeenth-century work of Benedictus de Spinoza. Affect describes a “prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another.” Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, xvii. Affects inhabit a transpersonal terrain, what Ben Anderson labels an “atmosphere” within which bodies/objects encounter one another. Anderson, “Affective Atmospheres.” Personal feelings emerge through these encounters. They constitute the conscious ways people make sense of and provide a language to transpersonal intensities with repeated experience.

55. This approach to affect stems from the work of scholars such as Antonio Negri and Derek McCormack, among others. Negri, “Value and Affect”; McCormack, “An Event of Geographical Ethics.” Ben Anderson argued that research must do more to consider how affective capacities become the “object-target” of biopolitical techniques and apparatuses, and how collective affects become part of the “conditions” for the birth of new forms of biopower. Anderson, “Affect and Biopower.”

56. Williams, Marxism and Literature; Illouz, Cold Intimacies; Stewart, Ordinary Affects. Anthropological work on emotion has also helped theorize how it is shaped by dominant political, social, economic, and cultural arrangements. Abu-Lutz and Lughod, Language and the Politics of Emotion; Lutz, Unnatural Emotions; Richard and Rudnyckyj, “Economies of Affect.”

57. Work has exposed how the production of certain affects/emotions is crucial in financial modeling, encouraging consumption, governing spaces and populations, and extracting value from labor. Hochschild, The Managed Heart; Konings, The Emotional Logic of Capitalism;. Schüll, Addiction by Design; Davies, Nervous States. But there remains a long way to go to understand the relationship between emotions and modes of capitalist accumulation, exploitation, and gendered, racialized, and colonial inequalities—in other words, the emotional politics of contemporary capitalism.

58. This might be funneled through the attempts of various institutions, industries, or dominant logics to encourage certain behaviors such as resilience, endurance, or entrepreneurialism, or create happy citizens. Kohl-Arenas, The Self-Help Myth; Cabanas and Illouz, Manufacturing Happy Citizens; Grove, “Agency, Affect.”

59. Recent work in anthropology has examined the everyday politics of hope in different spheres, tracing how it sometimes provides the grounds for accumulation and inequality but also for the emergence of sociality, which challenges those processes. Sanchez, “Relative Precarity”; Cross, “The Economy of Anticipation”; Lorey, State of Insecurity; De Boeck, “Inhabiting Ocular Ground.”