Voices from Cairo's streets

Sarah El-Rashdi, Tuesday 8 Oct 2013

Amid political upheaval and economic stagnation, Cairo's lower income residents are struggling to make ends meet

Old man holding bread, newspaper and grocery bag. Lower-class Cairo district. (Photo: Sarah El-Rashi

As the struggle for power continues in Egypt, many of its poorer residents feel their economic plight is being neglected.

Am Sayed, manager of a small shop in the central Cairo district of Ben Al-Kanayes, is one of many such disgruntled Egyptians.

“People are not interested in our opinion,” Sayed tells Ahram Online. “Policymakers do not understand how we live; they do not come to poor neighbourhoods and see our needs.”

Despite the area’s location close to the capital’s central Ramsis train station, financial resources are minimal.

The buildings in the area are poorly-maintained, with chipped paintwork. Many lack basic facilities.

Ben Al-Kanayes is one of countless struggling districts in a country that has been ravaged economically since the 2011 uprising.

Economic conditions were already worsening for the poorest under Hosni Mubarak. The World Food Programme and the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) recorded in 2011 that 13.7 million - 17 percent - of Egyptians suffered from food insecurity, a 3 percent rise from 2009. The report also indicated that double the amount of people became impoverished than those who were lifted out of poverty.

The recent political troubles have only intensified the country’s economic woes. Following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt continued to face instability while the armed forces ruled during a transitional period.

Many believed that the election of Egypt’s first civilian president would bring some much-needed order. However, Egyptians quickly turned against Morsi, leading to his toppling from power after mass protests on 3 July.

Some of Egypt’s impoverished now believe that if the economic situation does not improve soon a “revolution of the hungry” will break out.

“The revolution of the hungry is coming. The carts of foul (fava beans, a traditional Egyptian dish) have delayed the inevitable, but once rations deplete, you will find people revolting in despair,” said Am Sayed, whilst pointing to one of his area’s popular colourful carts from which vendors sell the beans.

The Ben Al-Kanayes local claims that owing to the popular high protein and carbohydrate dish - which costs around 1LE - people have until now managed to remain patient, though he warns this will not last.

The living conditions for the middle and lower classes are intolerable, complained some locals, highlighting problems such as food scarcity, unemployment and insecurity.

Under mounting difficulties depression is rife, with many saying they feel hopeless.

Support for Egypt’s military chief

In the poverty-stricken Darb Al-Ahmar district, located beside the Khan Al-Khalili, a once-bustling tourist area in historic Cairo, the unkempt, sewage ridden streets are full of pictures of General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

Pictures of the armed forces chief are now a common sight in the capital in districts like Ben Al-Kanayes and Dahr Al-Ahmar.

El-Sisi, who lent the support of the army to the mass protests on 30 June demanding Morsi’s ouster, has become a national hero for many among the struggling masses.

Notes from a patriotic song about the general echoed through the streets of the district, with many residents like candle vendor Badr El-Refai making the song their ringtone.

“We were against the Brotherhood from the outset and voted for [runner up in the presidential elections Ahmed] Shafiq. People were initially brainwashed with religion, believing it was the only solution after Mubarak,” said El-Refai, while fellow traders nodded in agreement.

Despite El-Sisi’s popularity, a few residents think that he should not run for the presidency.

“El-Sisi is an excellent military man; he should not run for the presidency as this would weaken his position,” said Ahmed Hassanein, a 29-year-old salesman.

Hassanein was quick to come to El-Sisi’s defence when asked to define the removal of Morsi, describing it as a popularly-supported deposal of the president. The military supported the demands of the masses following demonstrations in which millions took to the street to request Morsi’s ouster, he said.

Many local residents in Dahr Al-Ahmar also seem disenchanted by political actors like former vice president Mohamed ElBaradei, complaining that he seems unaware of their needs.

“El-Sisi understands our problems and is an independent thinker, whilst there is a clear detachment between the poor and politicians like ElBaradei,” said Ashraf Mohamed, an air conditioning salesman.

Many locals also believed that their lives have improved after Morsi’s ouster. The power cuts that plagued Egyptians during his one year in power have slowly diminished, Mohamed said. He also pointed out that locals no longer have to wait in two hour queues at petrol stations to refuel their cars.

However, the primary concern for the vast majority appeared to be security in the face of ongoing terrorist attacks in Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt.

“Security is top of the list of concerns; we are living in a constant state of fear,” explained Affef Abdel-Messieh, a middle-aged widow and mother of three.

Sporting a small cross tattooed on her wrist, a common practice among Egyptian Christians, she insisted that religious divides were insignificant, as people remained preoccupied with their daily struggles.

Political animosity between Brotherhood supporters and the pro-Sisi masses living within such underprivileged communities also seemed to be inconsequential, said locals.

Economic woes

After security concerns, economic issues were a major worry for many residents Ahram Online spoke to.

Political and institutional ambiguity, a perception of rising insecurity and sporadic violence continue to negatively impact economic recovery.

The World Bank reports that real GDP growth slowed to just 2.2 percent year on year in October-December 2012/13 and investments declined to 13 percent of GDP from July to December 2012. Foreign exchange reserves continue to decline, at present constituting less than three months of imports.

Moreover the recession triggered a rise in unemployment, with 3.5 million people unemployed (a rate of 13 percent) at the end of December 2012, as per the World Bank. Not surprisingly, poorer Egyptians place great emphasis on the urgent need for job creation.

“My two sons, both graduates, are at home unemployed whilst I go to work,” said the visibly weary widow, Abdel-Messieh.

Like many, she insists the state must first concentrate on security, then job creation, followed by upgrading the health and education sectors.

Other complaints discussed by some of the poor include inadequate pensions. Local barber Mohamed Abdo, who is in his late sixties, claims that despite his age he continues to work in the empty souq near Darb El-Ahmar, given his meagre monthly pension of LE370.

His lack of economic resources have further prevented him from having a crucial back operation. Hearing the story, one of the barber’s client commented that “even under Mubarak conditions were better.”

Endless complaints of inflation in the prices of basic goods such as bread, sugar and vegetables were thus not in the least surprising, as people live on a day-to-day survival basis.

“Although our living standards remain the same after Morsi, at least we have hope now,” said Ibrahim Hussein El-Sayed, a local taxi driver, cheerfully.

Unshakeable faith

The Egyptian fighting spirit and positive outlook is seemingly undeterred by the mounting socio-economic challenges.

Cobbler Hassan Salah’s tiny booth in Darb Al-Ahmar is decorated with colourful tattered shoes, above which a small photo of El-Sisi has been hung.

Salah is just one of countless poorer Cairenes who exude unshakable faith. Prior to the revolution Salah had an average daily income of LE70; today he is lucky if he makes LE20.

Such heart-rending stories are never ending in a country where the majority are poor and nearly half live below the international poverty line of less than $2 per day.

“Some days there is no business and I go home to my family with nothing, but thank God we never sleep hungry,” Salah said. “But, things will pick up soon. The mother of the world will prevail.”

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