Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Cash-starved Egyptians turn on each other | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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CAIRO, (AP) – For over a week, Zaki Abdel-Aziz has been out of work and largely out of money, joining millions of Egyptians living more on hope than cash as the capital plunged into chaos and the economy ground to a virtual halt.

His wife and three children were hungry, tired and tense. There was slightly over 100 pounds ($17) in their apartment, and no way to borrow more. Then a chilling call came Tuesday night.

“The guy asked me, ‘Zaki, you haven’t worked for a week, right? You don’t have money?'” Abdel-Aziz, 45, recalled Thursday. “He said, ‘Come out tomorrow and you’ll get 100 pounds and a bag of food. All you have to do is join us against those traitors in Tahrir.”

Abdel-Aziz, who works in a government records office, angrily rebuffed the offer. “I’m hungry, but I won’t sell my soul to eat,” he said. On Wednesday, supporters of President Hosni Mubarak converged on Tahrir Square in central Cairo, fighting deadly battles with protesters who seek Mubarak’s ouster until early the next day.

The protests that have engulfed Cairo since Jan. 25 shuttered businesses, forced factories to stop operating, closed banks and the stock exchange and limited suppliers’ ability to restock store shelves. Three days into February, many salaries had not been paid, even as rents are due. The price of some basic goods has spiked over 50 percent and other products have started to disappear from shelves.

The shortages and price increases add to the economic pinch that many Egyptians involved in the protests said were among the key catalysts for joining the demonstrations. But they have also fueled anger both at the government and the protesters, pitting Egyptian against Egyptian.

Anti-government protesters allege that some of those who attacked them in Tahrir Square were paid to do so, but some Egyptians are losing patience with the demonstrators, saying Mubarak’s offer not to run for office again was a major concession.

“Enough,” said Mamdouh Sweilam, a mechanic who has been out of work since the first day of the unrest. “Like them, I want to be able to live, to earn a decent salary. But this isn’t living.”

He added: “The hope for democracy isn’t going to put food on the table right now.”

Ahead of the protests, Egyptians had complained of low salaries and rising costs. Analysts have said that the roughly 17 percent annual inflation in food prices would remain a key challenge, even if Mubarak steps aside.

But if the partial aim of the protests was to make clear Egyptians’ anger over high prices, the unrest has only exacerbated the problem.

Staples like bread, lentils and rice have spiked by as much as 80 percent. The inexpensive Egyptian pasta has largely disappeared from many neighborhood grocery stores. Cigarettes prices have spiked by at least 50 percent for some brands.

Prices are likely to continue climbing. The depreciation in the Egyptian pound has typically been accompanied by price spikes.

“Tourism? It’s dead. Foreigners coming to start businesses? Forget it,” said civil servant Kamal Abdel-Hamid, who blamed both camps in Egypt’s struggle. “This country’s economy has been set back 50 years.”

Dubai-based port operator DP World said Thursday the Sokhna port it operates on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, near the southern entrance of the Suez Canal, has reopened after being shut earlier in the week because of the protests.

Other companies have restarted operations, though many factories remained shut. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that the government’s shutdown of the Internet for several days cost Egypt $90 million.

But the losses are likely to climb from the damage to Egypt’s reputation, as potential tourists absorb images of thousands fleeing.

The government has taken steps to ease the economic pain.

It has set up a compensation fund of more than $680 million for businesses damaged in the protests, and said it began distributing pensions and salaries of over one million state employees via ATM machines at the branches of three local banks. It has also released goods from customs without requiring the prepayment of duties in a bid to allow businesses to restock.

For some Egyptians, the time for protest is over.

The demonstrators “say that we’ve waited patiently for 30 years for change and it won’t hurt to wait a bit more,” said Reem Nasser, a 32-year-old housewife who was out early in Cairo hoping to find shops that had restocked or reopened.

“But what do I tell my children? Wait for a month for your breakfast?” she said. “This needs to stop now.”