‘No Glimmers of Hope': Two Years After Egypt’s Revolution, an Economic Crisis Looms

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Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images

A boy runs along cliffs in the Manshiet Nasser slums on the outskirts of Cairo

Ramadan Khalaf Amin, 24, a microbus driver who earns the equivalent of $4.50 a day, is one of the myriad faces of the Egyptian revolution the world does not know. “I was going down to Tahrir the whole time,” Amin remembers of the uprising, whipping out a cell phone to play a video of demonstrators chanting, “Down with Hosni Mubarak!”

On a recent Friday, Amin was parked at the noisy junction where the ramshackle brick buildings of the Manshiet Nasser district meet the main highway, one of many such points where commuters make the crossing from Cairo’s unplanned, helter-skelter slums into the government-planned districts of the city. It was at this intersection where, during the uprising, demonstrators set fire to the local government offices.

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With the two-year anniversary of the revolt approaching, Egypt’s economy is struggling, and the new Muslim Brotherhood–backed government is far from resolving the manifold problems of poverty and urban deprivation that bubbled beneath the 2011 revolt. If anything, a rapidly dropping currency combined with austerity measures mandated by international lenders means that life is only going to get harder for the middle class and the poor in the coming months.

Amin’s parents migrated to Cairo from the Upper Egypt town of Asyut years ago in search of work. He was born in Cairo and lived his whole life in Manshiet Nasser, dropping out of school after the fourth grade. Amin is actually faring better than many in his neighborhood. The family moved into recently built subsidized housing. He earns more than the quarter of Egypt’s 80 million people surviving on just a dollar and a half a day, according to government figures released in 2012.

He despairs at lacking government services in his neighborhood and the slow pace of change since the revolt. “I don’t think this area will ever change,” he says, referring to Manshiet Nasser. “People are not only poor but also uneducated.”

Poverty alone does not cause revolutions. Many other countries are poorer and more socially stratified than Egypt. People of a broad swath of social classes participated in the uprising that toppled the Mubarak regime. Their grievances with the autocratic regime were many, including corruption, a lack of freedom of expression and an often terrifying police state. But a widening gap between rich and poor, eroding infrastructure and government neglect of the shantytowns were also part of the long, complex backstory of the popular uprising that toppled Mubarak.

Who were the demonstrators, young and old, hurling stones at riot police? Some of them were college-educated, tech-savvy activists who tweeted every tear-gas volley to the world. But many of them are were also street vendors, garbage collectors, militant soccer fans or bus drivers like Ramadan Khalaf Amin. Many of them are migrants from the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt (where poverty rates are even higher than in Cairo) living in buildings with electricity siphoned from the municipal grid. One of the slogans most frequently chanted during the revolt was, “Bread, freedom, social justice!”

Among those people are the 16 million inhabitants of the slums referred to as ashwayyat, which means haphazard “informal neighborhoods,” as experts politely call them. The scale of these neighborhoods becomes clear from a hilltop in Manshiet Nasser. There, a visitor can see all of Cairo sprawling below: on a nearby hilltop, the medieval Citadel with its dome and two minarets; along the Nile, modern tower blocks; and in the haze on the far horizon, the triangular silhouettes of the pyramids at Giza.

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In the valley below lies a vast warren of hand-built houses, some no more than one-room shacks. The hillside sloping down from the road is blanketed in garbage. A dead horse lies partially submerged in the detritus. Skinny dogs nose through the piles looking for scraps.

The slums ballooned in size under Mubarak as a result of population growth, a lack of affordable housing, a growing disparity between rich and poor and the reversal of land reforms, which compelled many in rural Egypt to move to Cairo. Today the teetering economy has left many observers darkly predicting that the residents of the slums will revolt. Sameh El Alaily, an urban-rehabilitation professor at Cairo University, says he hears people “talking about a revolution of the hungry.” Sipping a cappuccino among the fountains and elevator music at the Meridien hotel in the suburban Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis, he says that such fears are based in economic realities. “There is an end to the story,” he says. “Because if you don’t find something to eat, what do you expect?”

Egypt’s government, led by President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist allies, is pursuing what is widely perceived as the only policy option that can avert an even more chaotic economic slide: a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The need for an immediate fix has been underscored in recent weeks by the rapid decline of the Egyptian pound, which on Monday hit another record low of 6.58 to the U.S. dollar, down from 6.1 in November.

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But the loan will mean entrenching the deeply unpopular economic polices of the Mubarak era. The IMF is urging Egypt to pursue what it calls “fiscal reforms,” which is understood to mean slashing government spending, including cuts in subsidies for commodities like natural gas and a hike in taxes on basic goods. In other words, the immediate solution to Egypt’s economic problems will only result in more economic pain for ordinary Egyptians.

Anticipating the difficulty Morsi faces in persuading the public to accept the loan program, IMF chief Christine Lagarde told journalists during a visit to the Ivory Coast on Jan. 8, “The IMF needs to have the commitment of the political authorities that can actually endorse the program, own it and propose it to the population as theirs.”

How the public will feel is uncertain. “The question is going to be how people are going to react to what is going to be prolonged disaster,” says Michael Hanna, a Middle East analyst with the New York City–based Century Foundation. “Egypt is not getting better. There are no glimmers of hope.”

(PHOTOS: Thousands in Egypt Protest President Morsi’s Decree)

The anticipated cuts have raised the specter of January 1977, when President Anwar Sadat stopped bread subsidies after seeking loans from the World Bank. The cuts sparked two days of violent demonstrations in which some 800 people were killed when security forces moved in. University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole, who was in Cairo at the time of those riots, once recalled demonstrators chanting, “You’re wearing the latest fashions while we sit seven in a room!” (The slogan rhymes in Arabic: “Inta labis ahkir moda; ihna aidin saba fil oda!”)

The neoliberal slimming of the state’s economic profile continued to provoke instability under Mubarak. Plans to sell off state-owned factories beginning in 2004 were followed by a wave of labor unrest that culminated in an attempted April 2008 general strike and street fighting in the factory town of Mahalla al-Kubra, a skirmish that is now seen as a precursor to the 2011 uprising.

But travel today to one of Cairo’s many poor neighborhoods, and you’ll hear plenty of complaints about price hikes, but not necessarily talk of another revolution. One of those places is the far end of the Giza subway line, yet another point where Cairo’s muscular grid of trains and elevated highways meets a cacophonous world of microbuses and precarious-looking brick housing with rebar protruding from their roofs.

There, on the side of the road, tea seller Abu Ahmad, 56, said he no longer puts sugar in his tea because the price in his neighborhood shop rose from about 50 cents a kilo to about 90 cents a kilo. “Everyone is angry here,” he said. But he stopped short of calling for a renewal of street protests, arguing that people should vote the Muslim Brotherhood out of power in the upcoming parliamentary election. Down the street, butcher Abdul Rahman Muhammad, 52, also doubted there would be a poor people’s revolt. “People are tired,” he said.

(PHOTOS: Protesters Scale U.S. Embassy Walls, Tear Down American Flag)

But rising prices are not the only source of public frustration. The country’s creaking national infrastructure, too, remains a cause of political outrage. On Jan. 15, a train crashed south of Cairo, killing 19 young, poor riot-police conscripts, and the next day an unlicensed building collapsed in Alexandria, killing 28. Pictures of the train’s shredded carriage appeared on the front page of the nation’s newspapers on Jan. 16, the banner headline in the independent newspaper al-Shorouk reading, “And still the blood falls on the tracks.” The crash was the latest in a string of transport disasters, including a November collision between a train and a bus that killed 51 people, most of them children. So in addition to “owning” the expected austerity measures, Morsi’s government will also face heat for a whole range of social and economic problems inherited from the Mubarak regime.

The question going forward, analyst Hanna says, is how the public reacts to economic shocks and dysfunctional government when it comes not from a secular autocrat but from the religious Muslim Brotherhood, a large and diverse movement whose ranks include both wealthy businessmen happy to work with the IMF and ordinary Egyptians who benefit from the group’s social services. Hanna predicts the group will use the pull of religion to soften the blow of austerity. “The Salafis and [Muslim Brotherhood] will turn to culture and social issues, and I think they will become more demagogic, more sectarian. Economic deprivation is not a time on which to build a sort of liberal, open, pluralistic outlook,” he says.

Even Ramadan Amin, the young bus driver who participated in the initial uprising, said he agreed that people were living in harsh conditions but doubted there’d be another full-scale revolt against the Brotherhood. “The first thing is that poor people are very religious,” he said. “I don’t know about activism,” he said, shaking his head.

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