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For Egypt’s poor, elections received with apathy and frustration

As inflation rises and population struggles to survive, Sunday's general election is seen as little more than pointless routine.

AFP, Friday 26 Nov 2010
Poverty in Egypt

For many Egyptians struggling to get by on a meagre income as the cost of living rises, Sunday's general election is little more than a pointless routine guaranteed to hand victory to the ruling party.

In Bulaa Daqur, a poor area close to central Cairo, political banners hang across the road and the faces of local politicians beam down from walls.

But theirs is a reality far removed from life on the ground, where vendors sell potatoes from the back of wooden donkey carts, while children play in the street and stray dogs rummage in the sprawling piles of dirt.

"I have never voted, because the elections do not change anything... (and) will make the regime continue," said Samir, 42, a father of two who owns a barber's shop.

"The people must have a chance to live, to have something to eat. A kilo of meat costs around 70 pounds (12 dollars). Sugar costs around six or seven pounds. People can live without the meat, but we need sugar," he added.

"The lowest monthly wage is around 300 pounds. Divide this by 30 days for food, school fees, electricity and everything else, and it's not enough."

Last month, an Egyptian court ordered the National Council for Wages to raise the minimum salary for the first time in 26 years. But the new wage -- 400 pounds a month -- is still a pittance in the country of 80 million people where annual inflation hit 12 percent last month and rises in food prices in particular have aggravated discontent.

Despite five years of economic reform, some 40 percent of the population lives around the poverty line, and unemployment, officially pegged at around 10 percent, is estimated at between 15 and 20 percent.

Emad Gad, of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, argues that because of a stagnant political system that has failed to benefit ordinary Egyptians, the prevailing mood ahead of the legislative election is one of apathy. 

"If you go back to (President Hosni) Mubarak's election programme in 2005, he talked about tackling poverty, improving the economic situation and so on," said Gad. "But we still have widespread poverty, inflation and unemployment. If you ask about the programme of the (ruling) NDP this time, you'll see a copy and paste from the last election."

Despite the material woes of many Egyptians, the country has largely been spared the effects of the global economic downturn, posting growth of 5.1 percent in the 2009/2010 fiscal year.

The National Democratic Party has pledged to achieve the pre-crisis growth rate of 7 percent over the next five years. But little of this trickles down to ordinary Egyptians, who have reason to be wary of more immediate economic dangers.

Russia's decision to ban wheat exports in August served as a startling reminder of Egypt's vulnerability to commodity price fluctuations, as the world's largest grain importer.

Two years ago, deadly riots erupted in the Nile Delta during protests against food price hikes and low salaries.

While no one expects the election to change the status quo and usher in policies that redistribute Egypt's wealth more fairly, some in Bulaa Daqur hope that voting for NDP candidate Amer Zaid may bring them some direct material benefits. But other residents disagree.

"I used to vote for the NDP, but now I don't bother because I don't see any changes coming from the election," said Ahmed Rushdi, 55, an employee at the Ministry of Commerce.

"We suffer from a lot of things. We do not have enough water. We need new buildings. The cost of food has gone up," he added.
"Maybe the NDP can bring some small changes. I hope so, because they represent the majority and people always vote for them. We only hope."

Mohammed el-Guendi had other concerns. 

"Vote? Why should I vote? There's no point," said the taxi driver. 

"The only thing that really bothers me is that they've postponed the football match between Al-Ahly and Zamalek," the ardent Zamalek supporter added with a laugh.

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