GIZA, Egypt — The woman with crates of unsold tomatoes breathed in the boisterous music of slum life: creaking shutters, squawking chickens, blowing laundry, clattering junkmen.
But the ingrained rhythms only angered Hamid Ali Mohamed, who sat in an alley beside her rusting scales and a slim pile of 12 coins, the equivalent of less than $2 for a day’s work at the vegetable stand she inherited from her late husband.
“Hey!” she yelled at a passing woman. “Why’d you buy those tomatoes from someone else?”
“Cheaper prices,” screeched the unapologetic reply.
Mohamed bit her lip and shook her head.
“I’m raising orphans,” she said, her thick hands shooing flies in a sliver of shade. “There’s no money. There’s nothing. The president did this to us. He didn’t move things along.”
Life has long been harsh in Boulaq al Dakrour, a warren of laborers, tailors and mechanics crammed between train tracks and the pyramids. But faces that once offered smiles have turned sullen amid crime, fuel shortages, blackouts, the black market and private burdens whispered on narrow streets careening with motorized rickshaws and young men too poor to marry.
Venom is high and peace is scarce across Egypt. Three accused robbers in the Nile Delta were recently beaten to death by mobs, and then hanged, in a spasm of the vigilante justice that has taken hold as police have retreated. Men wearing movie masks and armed with swords gather in the streets, calling for a new revolution and taunting Mohamed Morsi, the accidental-turned-authoritarian Islamist president who bears the scorn of a nation.
Morsi faces the perilous challenge of rescuing an imploding economy before Egypt runs out of money and tumbles into widespread rioting. The country’s currency is sliding, foreign reserves are evaporating, and inflation is so rampant that many families must spend half their incomes on food. Fearing fresh uprisings, the government has avoided deep austerity measures needed to qualify for billions of dollars in international loans.
Subsidy cuts are expected this year on fuel and other commodities, including flatbread, or aish, which has long served as the defining bond between the government and the people. Former President Anwar Sadat sparked deadly riots in the 1970s when he broached trimming bread subsidies. He quickly retreated. In 2008, his successor, since-deposed Hosni Mubarak, called in the army to bake loaves to ease shortages brought on by corruption and rising wheat prices.
“If bread gets more expensive,” vegetable seller Mohamed said, “people will slaughter one another more than they’re already doing. Early-morning bread lines stretch from here all the way to the train crossing. You get up at 5 a.m. and stand to feed your kids. This is what Egypt has become.”
Morsi has announced that the state will ration bread to reduce subsidies this summer. Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat, but flour still costs government-contracted bakers less than $2 for a 100-pound sack. Raising that cost so the government can trim its debt and pay off international suppliers would probably push up the price of bread for millions of poor families, spur bakery layoffs and stoke a black market in which private bakeries now spend up to $20 for a sack of flour.
“This was a police state before the revolution, but at least the bread industry worked,” said Mustafa Mahmoud, an independent baker. “Now, there’s no supervision, no law. We don’t know what to do. All I know is that this is a failed government and a failed president.”
Corruption, like poverty, has long been part of the bread industry. More than 40% of Egyptians live on $2 a day, paying about a penny for a loaf of round bread. But bakers, many of whom are producing fewer loaves, allege that the government owes them $60 million in unpaid subsidies at a time when shortages in diesel fuel, which powers their ovens, are hurting business.
“Government bakers don’t use all their wheat,” said Sayed Ahmad Ghorayeb, a butcher well versed in the intricacies of neighborhood commerce. “They stop baking early to sell their flour on the black market. They load it on tuk-tuks [rickshaws] and drive it away. They don’t care about the poor. They just want a profit. The quality of bread is already much worse.”
He held up two scrawny loaves.
“Undercooked, missing flour and yeast,” he said. “No fluff.”
He looked across the alley to a whirl of chicken feathers and hungry cats.
“It’s a bad time in Egypt,” he said. “Protests against the government are causing the problems. When people see protests on TV, they don’t come. There’s no tourism. We have no dollars. People need to calm down. These days we can no longer tell the difference between a revolutionary, a thug or a thief. They’re all one.”
Around the corner, men and boys moved like shadows past the oven flame in Samir Sabri’s bakery.
“What the government has planned is bad for the people. There will be strikes if these subsidy cuts hurt,” said Sabri, who estimated he would have to halve the salary of his employees to $5 for a 12-hour shift. “There are no other jobs. I have a diploma as a craftsman, but I’ve been baking bread since I was a child.”
The breeze slackened and the bakers broke out in sweat.
Mohamed leaned against a brick wall. Tomatoes, onions and peppers were stacked in boxes and silver pails around her scales. Tomatoes were the most unpredictable, she said, one day costing her $5.80 a crate, the next day $8.30. She sought to explain the logic but couldn’t, knowing only that unsold vegetables would soon rot.
“They just sit here,” she said. “A lot gets thrown out.”
Someone in the apartment above her beat a carpet as dust bloomed from a window. The bag of bread Mohamed bought early that morning sat at her feet. She would bring it home to her two boys when she closed the stall, and maybe give some to her daughters, who were married but often came by the house.
“We’re all poor,” she said, rubbing her hands on an apron.
Flies buzzed and a shopkeeper threw water outside his door to keep the grit down.
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.