Category: Sociology
Social Inequality in Egypt

The mater of social equality between different groups of people had remained topical since the ancient times, but it has occurred with the different intensity and for different reasons at various times. In addition to that, the recognition of the importance and value of human personality had changed several times during the history until it evolved to its modern condition. Moreover, even now, this evolution of self-recognition occurs differently in various countries. In accordance with the simple logic, it can be assumed that the level of inequality is higher in the countries that show a relatively lower level of economic and political development. Thus, the situation with social inequality in Egypt finds its origins back in the Predynastic period in Upper Egypt. As Uruguayan Egyptologist J. J. Castillos (2009) suggests, the causes of such a stratification are directly related to the aggrandizers who had used the opportunities presented by a certain degree of density, a relaxation in the context of the rejected accumulation of resources, the resulting growth of productivity and wealth, and an unequal distribution of prosperity. Despite the passage of time, contemporary Egypt cannot show the best quality of the social, economic, and political distribution for its population. Today’s Egypt experiences difficulties in providing a proper democratic politics for its citizens. Those difficulties are mainly related to human rights. To examine a connection between the current situation in Egypt and the concept of social inequality, this paper will analyze social environment of the republic in terms of provided studies of such significant sociologists as David Emile Durkheim and Herbert Spencer.

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The Overview of Inequality in Egypt

To provide a proper analysis of the inequality crisis in Egypt through the prism of Durkheim’s and Spencer’s approaches to the concept of inequality, this section will examine the country in regards to the manifestation of inequality and its level. As it has been earlier defined, the roots of inequality in Egypt are found in the Predynastic period. According to Castillos (2009), social, geographical, and political conditions could not cause inequality, while some reasons of it could be found in unequal access to agricultural production. One could argue whether that statement should be assumed as relevant or not, but for this research, it would be more important to clarify and specify conditions of a certain social environment in the contemporary the Arab Republic of Egypt, the factors that that caused these conditions, and the outcomes that these conditions can bring to the future of the Republic. Firstly, the database of World Bank provides the statistics of Egypt that shows Gini Index from 1996 to 2008 (see Figure 1) (Tinoco, 2013).

Figure 1

Gini Index in the Arab Republic of Egypt

Source: Tinoco (2013).

Thus, Gini Index shows the level of the income distribution of the country’s population. The coefficient serves for the estimation of the gap that separates the rich from the poor, where 0% represents the highest level of equality and 100% - the lowest level of equality (perfect inequality) (Investopedia, n.d.). As it can be seen from Figure 1, in the period from 1996 to 2000, the equality index in the republic had decreased by 2.5%, but after 2000, the coefficient started to grow slowly, which mean that the gap shortened. It is quite important to understand that even though the index had decreased, it was still higher in 2008 than in 1996. As for employment, the statistical data of the World Bank shows that in the period from 1969 to 1997, the informal sector improved its receiving of new entrants (Figure 2). For instance, in 1998, the informal sector received the greatest amount of new entrants estimated to 70%, while the public sector received only 20% of new entrants to the labor market.

Figure 2

Share of new entrants into formal and informal employment in Egypt, 1969-1998

Share of new entrants into formal and informal employment in Egypt

Source: Tinoco (2013).

Among other indicators of inequality, Egypt experienced continuing and increasing problems with inequality of opportunities. The Egyptian system of employment is built in such a way that it majorly evaluates individual’s “family education levels and socioeconomic status” (Tinoco, 2013). This means that there are barriers in applying for the job for young people from the lower socioeconomic layer with poor family education. Moreover, Egypt experiences general problems with inequality in the educational sector. As an evidence of this, one can name the study of the Survey of Young People in Egypt (SYPE) that represents the 12-29-year-old people of Egypt. To analyze the level of inequality in the educational system of Egypt, the study takes into estimation “the wealth and income rank of the household in which the student resides, which is based on a composite measure of the assets and resources of the household developed by SYPE”. In other words, the study provides the analysis of socioeconomic inequalities and their influence on inequality in educational opportunity. Results of the study are presented in Figure 3. As it can be seen, in the top part of the wealth/income distribution, the slopes are much steeper than in the lower and middle parts of distribution (Figure 3). The non-linear relation between family wealth/income and educational transitions means that the increase of wealth/income is more consequential in the top of the distribution part than in its lower and middle parts.

Another evidence of inequality in Egypt is the significant gender wage gap in the labor market. According to El-Hamidi and Said (2014), the gender wage inequalities for women have grown in the period of 1988-1998. The gap has continued to grow with time. The data from particular study has showed that the level of women discrimination in the labor market does not directly correlate with the level of educational opportunity and skills: the number of educated and skilled women has grown steadily, while the of employed women has remained low.

Figure 3

Mean proportion of students’ places in upper-secondary academic track and making the transition to four-year college (unconditional) for each wealth/income percentile

Mean proportion of students’ places in upper-secondary academic track

Note: Analysis of placement in academic track includes both men and women; four-year college analysis is for men only. Source: Jackson & Buckner (2016).

D. E. Durkheim and His Approach in Understanding the Concept of Social Inequality

David Emile Durkheim (1857-1917) was a French sociologist, philosopher, and the founder of the French school of sociology; his contribution to the sociological study was appreciated alongside with Karl Marx and Max Weber. Durkheim devoted a significant part of his sociological researches to the sociological “science of morality”. Generally, Durkheim was against social disorder. Although the sociologist politically represented the liberal elite, his approach was more conservative intellectually. He claimed that social disorders, expressed with striking social changes, could be reduced with the implementation of social reforms. In his work “Suicide,” he discussed the influence of the social facts on individual’s behavior. He claimed that sociology had to study so-called social facts and conceived of social facts as forces and structures that are external to, and coercive of, the individual. Durkheim’s first major work was The Division of Labour in Society (1893), in which he attempted to “treat the facts of moral life according to the method of the positive sciences”. In this particular work, Durkheim showed that the individualism itself was a moral phenomenon and that this phenomenon dramatically contrasted the moral structure of traditional order. He made the conclusion about earlier societies that they were held together by non-material social facts” meaning a strong common morality, or “a strong collective conscience. The sociologist also claimed that modern division of labor has several “pathologies.” Thus, Durkheim did not consider a revolution as an adequate method of holding society together. Instead, he suggested several reforms to strengthen the modern system and keep it operational.

The roots of Durkheim’s approach to social diversity lie in the perspective of functional concept. The philosopher argued that separation was the necessary attribute of society for its proper functioning. Along with that, Durkheim often referred to the allocation in society, where the individual’s richness or poverty existed from birth, without disappearing completely. Durkheim (1984) stated that:

even this ultimate inequality, which springs from the fact that rich and poor exist by birth, without disappearing completely, is at least somewhat mitigated. Society strives to reduce it as much as possible, by helping in various ways those placed in too disadvantageous a situation, and by assisting them to move out of it. (p. 314)

Durkheim (1984) suggests that the generally accepted opinion in society that social equality does and has to become greater is erroneous and equality has to stop growing. Even more, as the process of division of labor will cause the everlasting growth of inequality, the public consciousness proves that the necessity of equality is the “equality in the external conditions of struggle” (Durkheim, 1984, p. 314). The sociologist argues that any external inequality compromises the natural solidarity, which harms lower societies that have higher solidarity than the community of beliefs and sentiments ensures (Durkheim, 1984). The discontent from thwarted aspirations cannot be a sufficient reason to turn people who suffer from those aspirations against the social order, caused with that order. Thus, the sociologist comes to the conclusion that social inequalities “are not only even found to be tolerable, but also natural” (Durkheim, 1984, p. 315), and equality is the external condition of the struggle.

Herbert Spencer and His Approach in Understanding the Concept of Social Inequality

Herbert Spencer (1820-1930) was a British sociologist and philosopher just like Durkheim. However, unlike the latter, who was a representative of positivism, Spencer was now known for his criticism of that sociological theory. Spencer’s main contribution is the application of theory of evolution into philosophy, psychology, and sociology, or as he called it – a “synthetic philosophy” (Sweet, 2016). Spencer’s approach to the social world strongly differs from Durkheim’s one. Spencer recognized people’s struggle against their life conditions, and that the strongest ones were those who were more successful. This can be understood as the call for competition as long as those who succeeded in it were considered to deserve that success, and those who did not succeeded deserved to fail. Spencer was against efforts, especially government’s ones, that were brought in help for those who had failed the competition or struggle. As Spencer states in his work The Study of Sociology:

Fostering the good-for-nothing at the expense of the good, is an extreme cruelty. It is a deliberate stirring-up of miseries for future generations. There is no greater curse to posterity than that of bequeathing to them an increasing population of imbeciles and idlers and criminals… The whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better…If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die. (Abrams, 1986, p. 74)

As it can be concluded, in his works, Spencer focused mainly on the idea of natural selection, and in the combination with his evolutionary theory it had to give the key to understanding the causes of social phenomena. Along with that, in Social Statistics, Spencer argued that further evolution would turn the state of homogeneity into the state of heterogeneity. This meant that the division of labor was seen to him as natural part of the evolution and it would result in the growth of industrial organization. Just like Durkheim, Spencer also used functionalism considering the social phenomena. He perceived society as an organism with its interdependent parts, each of which had its functional purpose. He used biology for analogy to achieve a structural-functional sociology of change. Clearly, the sociologist suggested the social system in a form of the structure of mutually dependent institutions exerting force of one another in the course of their several efforts to survive and grow. In addition, he had the point of view, according to which, individual’s free will is incompatible with social evolution, and human’s will was seen as a factor in social evolution. Moreover, he made evolution and social processes directly dependent. It is undoubtedly seen that Spencer’s approach to social science is based on evolutionary theory, both of which he has united into one structural-functional sociology of change. Naturally, his approach to labor diversity and inequality relates with that exact theory. He considers people as an organism and different groups of society as parts of that organism, each of which bears some particular function.

Comparison of Inequality Concepts of Durkheim and Spencer

Despite the fact that Durkheim and Spencer lived in different places, shared different approaches in sociology and philosophy, their attitudes to the question of social inequality had much in common. As it was underlined, both sociologists used functionalism evaluating the importance of individual for the rest of society. Durkheim claimed that the differences between distinct parts of society originated mainly from birth. Thus, the position in the hierarchy of society, held by the individual after birth, will be most likely held by that individual until the end of his life. Durkheim considered this tendency as an important factor of social stability and order, the latter of which was quite significant for him personally, as he hated social disorder and revolution. Spencer, in turn, had a bit different explanation for his theory, but what stayed the same was the attitude in social diversity. Although Durkheim was neither Spencer’s disciple nor he took into account Spencer’s works, he also described the need of social stability from the perspective of functionalism. Spencer took his theory of evolution as the base and built his theory of inequality on it. Although, unlike Durkheim, Spencer connected functions of different social groups with the course of evolution. At the same time, Spencer underlined the importance of each social group for evolution, comparing them to the interconnected parts of organism, and stated that those parts, which did not succeed as the part of society, deserved to fail and even die. From the point of view of the organism, this may seem logical, as it is not needed and even flawed for the organism to support a not useful or harmful part. However, in terms of evolution, such an approach might be not quite sufficient, as weak parts of society also make an important investment into the course of evolution.

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It can be clearly seen that the prescription in relation to the question of inequality in society strongly differs in two sociologists. They do maintain the common idea of inequality as a necessary attribute of the developing society, but they also explain this need with different arguments. It can be concluded that Durkheim’s normative position vis-a-vis that question is evaluated around modern society with its current needs and conditions, while Spencer sees inequality as the key of successful evolution, which correlates with much bigger amount of time and place. Both sociologists share the same general normative position in relation to the concept of inequality as a needed feature of society. As for the roots of the phenomenon, Durkheim defines them as the born ones and barely dependent from the person, while Spencer underlines the role of individual in the process of division, while stating that people should compete with each other to prove they deserve to exist.


Taking into account the situation in contemporary Egypt, one finds it a bit difficult to relate it to one of the approaches of the aforementioned sociologists. However, they can help to determine what could be the reasons of such an unfortunate course of actions in the republic. First, as it was already claimed, Egyptians had suffered from inequality from ancient times. In accordance with Durkheim, this fact might find its excuses from the born, but the tendency would barely keep being the same over the course of thousands of years. From another point of view, Spencer’s one, as society had not succeed in the process of evolution, this might mean that the major part of Egyptians were weak individuals who did not contribute to society’s progress but dragged the country down. Moreover, the ballast of the so-called failed parts of organism of the state was so big that the number of failed people continued to grow, which in the result led to the revolution in 2011. As for the revolutions, Durkheim has pointed that it could be considered as the sigh of insufficient politics of the state’s government since as it had not made enough efforts to prevent that revolution. Both sociologists help understand some aspects of social inequality, but Durkheim’s approach is wiser and more thoughtful, so it can be considered as the better explanation for the case of inequality. The reason for this is that Spencer’s attitude is based more on his philosophical beliefs that have not always been connected with other social sciences, which might help to provide a better prediction of the development of inequality in society. At the same time, Durkheim gave actual pieces of advice to understand the phenomenon of inequality and provided the theory that seemed more appropriate from the perspective of social sciences.

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