Egyptians get more desperate as inflation and poverty bite

Egypt has enough money for three months' supplies. What then?

Egypt has enough money for three months' supplies. What then?

Egyptians suffering deprivation and strife over the past two years have revived the original slogan of the 2011 uprising, “Bread, freedom and dignity”.

While revolutionaries in the streets continue demanding “freedom and dignity”, workers with and without jobs simply cry “bread”.

Hassan, a chef, says costs are rising “day by day. I used to give my wife 400 [Egyptian] pounds for shopping for two weeks. Now we buy the same amount of food for 800-1,000.


“For two years we have bought no clothes,” he says.

His eldest daughter, aged 24, is an elementary school teacher. The youngest, at 17, is still in school.

Hassan’s wife keeps refilling a prescription obtained from a doctor two years ago without returning to see if she still needs the medication because the family cannot afford another consultation. Hassan, who lives in Helwan outside metropolitan Cairo, has to travel an hour and a half to get to his job. “The metro [ticket price] is the same but the bus fare is higher,” he says.

“Many factories have closed in Helwan,” once famous for its steel works, “and many people have lost their jobs.”

Ahmad, a driver and father of two, complains of the rising cost of diesel, petrol, and cooking gas, and long queues at service stations. He has a son at university and another at school. Fees are backbreaking.

Price rise

Household help Amr says the prices of everything have gone up 40-50 per cent since Hosni Mubarak was ousted as president.

Mourad, a construction worker employed as a driver, argues that life under the Mubarak regime was better, although Mubarak was “only interested in getting [his son] Gamal into power and taking money. [His successor Mohamed] Morsi does not understand how to manage Egypt. He is not for the state, only the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood]. There is no system. Before there was order, today there is none.”

Traffic crawls along wide avenues and narrow streets due to the proliferation of vendors with barrows of bananas, tomatoes, cucumbers or racks of cheap clothing.

One vendor who used to sell phone cards at a small shop near the metro station in the upscale Maadi suburb of Cairo has taken his business to the street, where he pays no rent. Vendors who used to be chased away by the police now fight with knives and bullets over lucrative pitches.

Desperate people adopt desperate measures. A man demanding a job wounded a security guard when attempting self-immolation at the electricity ministry.

Roughnecks who broke into the Nile-side luxury Semiramis Hotel went for food and cash left by guests in rooms and cursed rich Saudi guests.

Highwaymen rob wealthy folk as they drive along the largely empty, rubble-flanked road to the posh suburb of New Cairo where huge, vulgar villas rise out of the desert.

People who do not fancy the long, risky drive are moving back into scruffy, vendor-plagued “downtown”, says Valerie, recently returned from Canada.

Not enough money

A survey conducted last September revealed that 86 per cent of Egyptians do not have enough money to cover food, clothing and shelter – a 12 per cent increase over the June figure.

Households consume less, choose cheaper food, and borrow money to buy necessities.

Men and women stand for hours in lines to secure subsidised bread made from poor-quality wheat laced with stones and chaff. Families with chickens, a donkey or a cow feed this bread to their animals, since it is cheaper than grain or hay, and consume more costly loaves.

The main cause of the disastrous economic situation is the failure of the 30-year Mubarak regime to invest in the country. Egypt’s infrastructure, manufacturing sector and housing depreciated while the country’s population rose to 83 million; 40 per cent subsist below the poverty line.

Youth unemployment is 65-75 per cent, one of the highest in the world. School leavers and university students who have no work live at home, dependent on their parents – unable to find jobs to support themselves or marry, their lives empty except when they march in protests.

But ignorance and inexperience have dogged Mubarak’s military and Brotherhood successors who have failed to address their hardpressed countrymen’s most basic needs.

As a country, Egypt is living from hand to mouth, although the government says its economy has grown by 2.6 per cent, a figure envied by Europe.

The country’s foreign currency reserves, which pay for food and fuel, fell from $15 billion to $13.6 billion during January, down from $36 billion two years ago.

Egypt has enough money for three months’ supplies. What then? No bread, no freedom and no dignity.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times