Wed, Dec 20, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Wary citizenry created hardship for Egyptian census takers


Egypt this week wraps up its nationwide census, but what is a perfectly normal exercise in many countries was met with skepticism in a society where a knock on the door by the state is often bad news.

The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) is finalizing the count of Egypt's bloating population, and aiming to capture a snapshot of society by delving into questions like numbers of appliances and physical assets to determine lifestyles, as well as trying to gauge health and literacy levels.

But the way the census was conducted -- run by military generals -- also speaks volumes about a country where people fear interaction with the state, whatever shape it takes.

More than 120,000 people were recruited to take on the mammoth task of surveying all of Egypt's homes, businesses, schools, hospitals and prisons.

"In the army we were trained for discipline and organization," said General Aboubakr Elgendi, president of CAPMAS and former assistant to the defense minister.

Asmaa Ahmed, a social studies student in Cairo, was assigned 3,000 homes to survey over the month-long counting period, but she said the task was more challenging than expected, with some people adamantly refusing to answer questions for reasons including fear of the tax authorities, fear of a stranger at the door, and superstition.

"I had to chase one woman down the stairs to get her to answer my questions," she said. "Some people wouldn't even let me in."

But refusing to answer questions comes with a penalty of up to six months behind bars.

Sociologist Maha Abdel Rahman says reluctance to give information might be explained by a general feeling of mistrust of the state's intentions.

"People do not trust government officials who are supposed to be providing them with services, because experience has proven time and time again that the state is not on your side," the American University in Cairo professor said.

"Representatives of the state can use information to harm, to hurt you or at least sabotage your daily life," she said.

Aboubakr launched a massive advertising campaign on billboards, in newspapers and on television in an attempt to allay some of these fears.

"The ads explained that we have nothing to do with the tax authorities, we have nothing to do with insurance authorities, we have nothing to do with any other state agency," he said.

He said the advertising campaign even highlighted the fact that CAPMAS was legally bound to non-disclosure. If a member of the organization were to give information to any other agency, he or she could also be jailed for six months.

But the advertising campaign simply fell on deaf ears, Abdelrahman said.

"The government in this particular instance is trying to use an academic or scientific approach when at every level in society, representatives of the state are negating the simplest ideas and principles of scientific thinking," she said.

"The state, at the educational level, does not invest in preparing people to think scientifically -- and all of a sudden it wants them to follow scientific methods of thinking," she said.

Egypt suffers from a poor public education system with oversized classes and meager resources.

Another unlikely challenge for CAPMAS volunteers was superstition. They reported that some respondents would not disclose their assets or the number of male children for fear of the "evil eye," an element of folklore in traditional societies which says that envy of people's fortunes will bring on their misfortune.

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