Pitting one couple against another in a test of their wits and knowledge of their partners isn’t the most original game show idea. Some might call it a rip-off. But on Egyptian state television’s al-Beit Betak, originality is beside the point. Every night during Ramadan, the show offered contestants a truly life-altering proposition: win a brand new apartment and settle down with your betrothed, or renew an indefinite and humiliating lease with your parents. It’s nothing if not topical. In Egypt, where property ownership is considered a binding prerequisite for marriage but even modest accommodations have become unaffordable for much of the middle class, the institution of matrimony is widely believed to be in full-blown crisis. The winners of one episode, both gainfully employed English teachers, had been engaged for eight long years.
Mona Abaza, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, calls the show “a fascinating sociological case study.” She attributes its enormous popularity to the “real middle-class” contestants—“educated schoolteachers who end up working in factories,” for example, to whom the average Egyptian can relate. And while parading such people before a national television audience might seem a risky strategy for an autocratic government often accused of contempt for the average citizen, Abaza suggests the regime considers the show a chance to appear open—and benevolent—while continuing to crush street-level dissent.
But al-Beit Betak offers no lasting solutions. Studies estimate the typical Egyptian wedding costs $6,000—more than four times the average annual income—and Abaza sees little evidence that couples are willing to consider more frugal nuptials or other pragmatic concessions. As a result, the average Egyptian man now marries at age 31, after a period of arrested development that has been linked to problems such as depression and sexual violence—things well beyond the abilities of a game show to fix.