PALM HILLS, Egypt (Reuters) - The four-wheel-drives outside the terracotta villas include a Lexus and a Porsche, and under the shade of the palms and the bright red poinciana trees men in liveried overalls are buffing them to a shine.
Across the road, concealed behind a wall and down a path littered with rubble, Sabri Ali and his fellow gardeners are living five to a small room, earning 18 Egyptian pounds ($3.35) a day for seven hours work tending lawns and pruning trees.
Three sleep on bunks, two share a mat on the floor. In the evening they watch a small black-and-white television set.
The gated community of Palm Hills, about 15 km (10 miles) west of Cairo, is one of dozens that have sprung up in the desert around the Egyptian capital to house upper middle-class Egyptians who can no longer take Cairo’s noise and pollution.
Many of them have alluring English names -- Hyde Park, Beverley Hills, Utopia and Evergreen, for example -- and developers advertise them mainly in English, turning their backs on the language of the country and its people.
Some have features harking back to a monarchical age, such as the name Royal Towers and lamp posts carrying the insignia of the Egyptian royal family, deposed more than half a century ago.
But even in these places, built as refuges from urban chaos on land uninhabited 20 years ago, the reality of 21st-century Egypt and all its social inequalities is impossible to escape.
Liberalisation and economic growth, running at around 7 percent a year for the past two years, have swollen the ranks of the wealthy, but over the same time the United Nations says the proportion of people living in absolute poverty has also grown.
OUTPACED BY INFLATION
Hard data on income distribution in Egypt is difficult to come by but recent sharp increases in food prices have hurt the poor because food takes up a high proportion of their income.
Hardship is the lot not only of unskilled manual workers in a country where constantly high unemployment keeps wages low. Ahmed el-Naggar, a senior economist at Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said his studies show that some 95 percent of public-sector employees live in poverty.
“The salary of a general manager in 2008 is less than his real salary in 1978,” he told Reuters. “This is because the wage system in Egypt benefits the employer. Wages increase at rates that are much slower than the rise in prices.”
Ramadan Ragab, who carries wood for the workers building nearby Safwa City, another guarded, gated community, says he earns 25 pounds a day and spends 10 pounds a day on food.
His recent wage increase of five pounds a day would hardly compensate him for the price increases of the past year, which has seen overall urban inflation hit 19.7 percent and prices of basic foodstuffs rise by between 25 and 51 percent.
Ali and the gardeners have received just a three-pound rise to 18 pounds and the only accessible grocery without transport is an on-site store with high prices.
Most of the workers came from distant provinces, especially from the impoverished south. They said they sent much of their earnings home and visit their families every few months.
But they also said contact with the luxury lifestyle of the people they serve has not made them envious or resentful.
“That’s the way God has divided (wealth) out,” said Ali. “Fairness is something for God to decide.”
Osama Awad, 26, who works as an unskilled surveyor’s assistant in Palm Hills, said he preferred to ignore the gap between the rich and the poor. “If I thought about that, I would wear myself out,” he told Reuters.
GOLF AND TENNIS
Sherif el Sayad, whose extended family moved two years ago to a large villa in the Katameya Heights community on the eastern side of Cairo, said he had no reservations about living in a compound with security guards at the gate.
“This is the normal way of life. You cannot put all people together. If you want to pay more for the safety of your child and for relaxation, it’s your right,” he told Reuters.
“If you have the money, you can buy an expensive car and you can buy security for your family.”
Katameya Heights has one of Egypt’s best golf courses and also describes itself as a tennis resort. Villas similar to the Sayads’ sell for about 4.5 million Egyptian pounds -- a sum it would take a Palm Hills gardener 1,000 years to earn.
Hisham Serag, a finance officer with a U.N. agency, moved to the Beverley Hills area near Palm Hills two years ago because his children had no space to play near their apartment in a crowded downtown neighborhood.
After the U.N. agency moved out of town, he drives five minutes to work and goes into the city only once or twice a month.
He loves the area and comfort, but says he has not forgotten how many Egyptians are poor. The United Nations says about one in five of them live in absolute poverty, on under $1 a day.
“Of course it’s really sad. You can see the huge difference between a small category living in compounds with villa, cars, a nice life, private schools, and the majority of the population are living under the poverty line,” he said.
“But what to do? ... I would just like to make my children as comfortable as I can.”
($1 = 5.35 Egyptian pounds)
Writing by Jonathan Wright, editing by Richard Meares
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