Egyptians pay high price for short-term calm

Uprising’s call for bread, freedom and social justice has been sidelined


Since the beginning of the year, Egypt’s security situation has improved considerably. The turmoil following the 2011 uprising has diminished due to the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and secular critics of the regime.

As my taxi driver turns into Tahrir (Liberation) Square roundabout, the cradle of the uprising that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak after 30 years, he sums up the feelings of many Egyptians: “You see, no more protests. We can drive through. The square used to be blocked by protesters or the army.”

Traffic swirls smoothly around the Tahrir hub, easing congestion in central Cairo. Egyptians have, for the time being, opted for short-term quiet instead of the uprising’s long-term objectives of “bread, freedom and social justice”.

Rising food prices

The price of bread, fruit and vegetables has risen, some items by double-digit percentages, due to the reduction of subsidies, particularly on fuel, which farmers need to power pumps that irrigate their land and to transport produce to market. The 40 per cent of Egyptians who live below the poverty line cannot afford price hikes.

When he assumed office, newly elected Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, a former army chief, promised to provide well-paying jobs in major infrastructure projects. Boosting the number of people in work means their families can afford high-priced bread.

This month Sisi inaugurated a project to create a new Suez canal parallel to the current channel that opened in 1869. The canal, which connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, enables east-west shipping to avoid the long route around Africa.

Budgeted to cost $4 billion (€3 billion) and cover half the route of the original canal, the new channel is expected to double daily capacity from 49 to 97 ships a day. Sisi says private firms will be involved in the construction, with completion scheduled for 2015.

Although a million workers are due to be employed on the project, the consequent reduction in the jobless rate is unlikely to solve the overall unemployment problem.

The number of unemployed stands at 3.5 million in a workforce of 27 million, out of a total population of 83 million. While some of the 74 per cent of unemployed youth aged between 15 and 29 might find work on the canal project, manual labour is certain to be rejected by the 88 per cent of that group who have received secondary or higher education.

Prestige projects

Critics argue that the second canal and other development plans place the focus on prestige projects instead of the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

An economist speaking off the record said: “The canal is symbolic, not a good idea. Egypt’s railways, roads and schools need upgrading.”

Rami, a prominent activist during the uprising, says the ousting last July of the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood stalwart, was necessary. He says “Morsi did nothing, nothing”, during his year in office.

However, Rami believes that since Morsi’s removal “the situation is worse” than under the repressive Mubarak regime.

Rami argues there is neither freedom for the people nor justice for “revolutionaries” who opposed the regime. Mubarak’s removal created an entirely new situation in Egypt, he says. Mubarak was “old and tired”, and his lax army-backed regime did not use full force against demonstrators. “Sisi is young, full of energy, new to the job, and he wants to make his reputation.”

In a report this week, Human Rights Watch sharply criticised the authorities for intentionally using “excessive lethal force” against protesters demanding Morsi’s reinstatement.

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