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Thursday, July 9, 2020

Hunger’s cruel shadow darkens Egypt

by Souhaila Ramadan

© AP Image
© Shutterstock

As Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, lead by Mohammed Mursi, continues to hold its iron grip on the country, many Egyptians are plunging further into poverty and hunger as the economic situation worsens – and things could get much worse, as Souhaila Ramadan reports.

Since the January 25th 2011 revolution, little has changed in the up market suburbs of Cairo and Egypt’s second city Alexandria. The well-heeled sip lattes and milkshakes in Italian-style coffee shops or in lavish private social clubs, shop for the latest brand names in pricey boutiques and push trolleys piled-high to sleek new automobiles parked outside mega international supermarkets. But away from the more affluent parts of town and the Beverley Hills type gated-communities, the majority of Egyptians are on the breadline literally, queuing up for round, rough brown loaves made from the cheapest flour or huddle around street vendors selling sandwiches filled with ears, tails or intestines.

In poorer areas, many butchers have gone out of business because customers can’t afford to buy beef or lamb at over EGP 80 ($ 12) a kilo when many subsist on less than $2 a day. Some of the more enterprising buy stale bread from restaurants just before closing time at a quarter of the going rate for newly-baked.

Those who believed ridding former President Hosni Mubarak from the top job was a panacea for all ills have been seriously disappointed. Two years ago, it was considered almost sacrilegious to say his name without an attached expletive. Nowadays, a growing number associate the Mubarak era with the “good old days”. Others who once fiercely demonstrated against military rule hold up banners apologising to the army. A not unsubstantial number, especially Port Suez and other cities along the canal demand a military coup as a prelude to new elections.

Jobs are scarcer than ever and as the Egyptian pound tumbles against the US dollar (10 per cent since December), prices of food, fuel and transport rocket exponentially. Importers are increasingly wary, which translates to imported foodstuffs and medicines absent on shelves. Finding a lowly tin of baked beans has become an all-day hunt.

Cheaply built apartment blocks, hurriedly erected post-revolution without building licenses have mushroomed scarring the skyline, but most remain untenanted. Street beggars are multiplying, young kids, some as young as five or six, run dangerously between moving traffic to bang on car windows in hopes of a hand-out.

Petty crime statistics reflect people’s desperation. However, police on the streets are a rare sight because their uniforms are like a red rag to a bull for gangs angry with the authorities for killing or injuring protestors; indeed, they’ve gone on strike in some cities complaining of low pay and weapons that are inferior to those in the hands of thugs armed with semi-automatics.

Just about everyone in Egypt is anxious about the future; everyone has a gripe. Coptic Christians fear, perhaps irrationally at this point, that they are becoming the new “Egyptian Jews” subject to state persecution or even driven out.

Liberals rail against the government’s crackdown on dissent that is affecting media freedoms. Popular talk show hosts, such as Amr Adeeb, Tawfik Okasha and, lately, Egypt’s answer to the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, the political satirist Bassem Youssef have all been threatened with arrest or have been recipients of arrest warrants, ostensibly for insulting the President. Youssef was subjected to a five-hour interrogation in the offices of the chief prosecutor before being allowed out on bail. Now the channel that airs his weekly show “El- Bernameg” (The Program), garnering 30 million viewers, has been warned that its license will be pulled, unless Youssef agrees to be gagged.

Young activists are incensed that their revolution has been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and believe that President Mohammed Morsi’s strings are being pulled by its Murshid (Supreme Leader) which is the very antithesis of the democracy they once envisioned. Young women hesitate to attend demonstrations where they risk being dragged into dark side streets before being raped or sexually abused; crimes that were virtually unknown under Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. Tourists are a dwindling species deterred by reports of street violence and abductions of foreigners from Red Sea resorts.

Overall, it’s not a pretty picture which the President knows only too well. He has not only failed to live up to just about every promise he made as a presidential candidate, he has alienated investors, entrepreneurs, judges, lawyers – even clerics in Al Azhar, the country’s highest centre of Islamic learning, with his badly thought out edicts and his clear mission to insert Brothers in influential government positions. From a purely anecdotal perspective, the Muslim Brotherhood’s former popularity is leaking even among its traditional base – the poor and uneducated. They are the people whose hopes for a decent life were built up high, and then dashed by those currently in power. They’ve not only been hit badly by the burgeoning price of staples but also by a law quashing fixed rents that have benefited tens of millions since Nasser’s socialist era.

Things are set to get worse, much worse, if the government accepts terms for a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan that will release $15 billion in multilateral aid and low-interest borrowing. The IMF loan may save the country from becoming a bankrupt failed state but comes at a harsh price for ordinary Egyptians who will face tax hikes and a cut in state subsidies on food and fuel, including cooking gas. In a nation already wracked by public unrest where Friday has become the day for anti-government chants and flying, often flaming, projectiles, greater austerity is guaranteed to enflame tempers – and could well result in a revolution of the hungry echoing the 1970s bread riots.

In fact, public discontent materialising into violent protest is largely the cause of the economy’s woes. An IMF loan will, therefore, be little more than a sticking plaster or a temporary roadblock on the highway to ruin, just as billions in aid from Gulf States has been. Fundamentally, Egypt is a rich country blessed with oil and gas, minerals, industrial, agricultural and tourist industries, not to mention the money-spinning Suez Canal. Its difficulties are due to mismanagement, true, but they are primarily political in nature.

There is one almost sure-fire quick fix – a government of national unity made up of respected figures from all sides of the spectrum together with experienced political veterans, diplomats with connections abroad, economists and technocrats. But when the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood has been patiently biding its time waiting to clench its fist around a country Egyptians once called Umm Al-Dunya (Mother of the World) it’s unlikely to go palms-up without a fight.

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