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Under Egypt’s political unrest seethes the rising anger of the poor

A man leaves an exchange office in Cairo last month after changing foreign currency. At the heart of the discontent in Egypt is the public anger over the battered economy.
(Nasser Nasser / / Associated Press)

CAIRO — Hands caked in plaster, hammers scattered at his side, Yousry Abdelaziz toils away almost forgotten in a workshop at the edge of a shantytown that echoes with gunshots and the hollers of boys peddling cabbages in the middle of the night.

The car mechanic next door is faring no better, even with his new marketing gimmick, a sculpture of mufflers and silver pipes twisting like fingers into the sky. A man has to try something to call attention to his business as the inflation rate rises, the Egyptian pound tumbles and sparse ingredients make subsidized bread as thin as paper.

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“We open at 8 a.m., but by the time we close we still sell nothing,” said Abdelaziz, who chisels plaster cornices and ceiling decorations for houses that aren’t being built. He looked to a clump of plaster not yet shaped. “I had to fire three of my six workers. I couldn’t pay them anymore.”

Nationwide riots protesting President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-linked party have swept Egypt in recent days, killing more than 50 people, most of them in the coastal city of Port Said. Since its revolution two years ago, the country has been overwhelmed by ideological battles between liberals and Islamists, its ambitions obscured by clouds of tear gas and flashes of gasoline bombs.

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But at the heart of the discontent is public anger over the battered economy, specifically the president’s failure to improve the lives of millions of people like Abdelaziz who voted for him last year.

The stock exchange is wildly erratic, foreign reserves have plummeted and commodity prices are up. Crowds protesting unemployment — officially at 12.5% — have demonstrated against local governments across the country. Strikes for higher wages have spread from doctors to bill collectors to millworkers.

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The Brotherhood often appears to be without answers, and steps it may need to take in the near future will only cause more pain. A series of austerity measures, including new taxes and cuts in subsidies, are expected before Egypt receives a $4.8-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

The economic problems are dire enough that in the midst of the current wave of unrest, Morsi made a quick trip to Germany on Wednesday to try to expand trade. Qatari royals visited Cairo last month and promised $2.5 billion in loans and investments to stave off bankruptcy. Analysts speculate about whether a new revolution of the poor will rise from the nation’s slums.

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“The key issue here is when you find a country with subsidized goods, you always find a black market,” said Angus Blair, president of the Cairo-based Signet Institute, which tracks economies in the Middle East and North Africa. “As inflation continues, it creates a problem for the poor.... I expect more protests, [widespread] strikes and roadblocks.”

Desperation radiates through this neighborhood that borders a centuries-old cemetery, where mechanics, plumbers, vegetable vendors and fix-it men move in angry rhythms. Sometimes a man in a pressed suit hurries through the alleys like a preening bird, hops onto a falling-apart minibus and heads out looking for work he probably won’t find.

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It’s always been poor along these quarried cliffs, where Cairo stretches out all the way to the pyramids. Laborers, fishermen and farmers from the southern provinces and the northern delta began arriving decades ago, nailing up wood and corrugated tin, replacing it later with bricks and mortar. They survived 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s negligent rule, but since his downfall conditions have worsened, and even the wild dogs prowl in smaller packs.

The Brotherhood occasionally sets up stalls to sell milk, tomatoes and meat at below-market prices. Parliamentary elections are planned for the spring, and the Islamists are skilled at gathering votes from the poor. But the economic burden has widened and the mistrust has deepened. Many complain that Morsi is as aloof to their needs as his predecessor was, and has yet to realize the revolution’s central creed: bread, dignity, freedom, social justice.

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“Before the revolution there was a lot of work, but now it’s bad,” said Moahmed Abdel Salam, the salesman with the muffler art and three children. He searched for a euphemism, adding that Egypt was in a time of saving because no one can afford anything. “As long as I have dinner at night I try not to worry about how much business I’m losing.”

These warrens never quiet: Street sweepers push gnarled brooms and sparks fly from metal shops deep into the night. But the sparse money flowing into apartments, many still with pirated electricity and no running water, vanishes into prescriptions for sick children or the pocket of the man who sells cooking gas.

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The head of Egypt’s besieged central bank resigned last month. No one noticed here. The powerful have long been curious abstractions, or as one man put it, “big people playing games only God knows.”

“I can’t get married,” said Mahmoud Ahmed, a 20-year-old tire repairman with blackened hands who keeps putting off a life he can’t pay for. “I need time to build myself up. I was engaged but I broke it off seven months ago. I have no money. How can I have a wife?

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“If I think too much about how bad things are, I get mad,” Ahmed said. “When I’m alone, I think about it a lot.”

When Abdelaziz, the plaster worker, voted for Morsi in June, he had hoped the new president would lift the 40% of Egyptians who live on $2 a day. Abdelaziz said the Islamist-led government needs time to fix years of corruption, “but if it gets any worse, we’ll be as bad off as Somalia.”

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Abdelaziz floated through his shop in a white tunic. His hands stayed on a perpetual hunt for a cigarette, his silver teeth glinted in the plaster dust. When he was a younger man, he packed his hammers and chisels and worked for 20 years in Saudi Arabia. He returned to Egypt in 1992 — “I curse that day now” — and inherited his father’s trade.

He keeps his brushes dipped in a gasoline and soap solution that binds the plaster. He works every day, his white, chalky cornices and ceiling decorations accumulating as if in a cluttered closet. He once wanted to build big houses, but his dreams shrank to fit his circumstances.

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He widened his eyes and mentioned oranges, baffled by the quadrupling of their price over the last year. His brother, who cut marble counters next door, died a few weeks ago and now Abdelaziz, his son and nephew struggle to keep two dwindling businesses alive. He is 65, too old, he said, to find work in another country, but too desperate to lay down his tools.

“I used to visit Europe,” he said, as if recalling another man’s life. “I don’t know much about politics. I don’t care who’s in power anymore. I just want to be able to eat and pay my employees.”

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.


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