By Sherine El Madany and Tom Pfeiffer / Reuters
CAIRO: Mechanic Hany Shaaban heard there was free food on offer in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, so he left his poor neighborhood of Sayda Aisha to mingle with the crowds demanding an end to Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule.
He found nothing to eat, but was drawn to the impassioned speeches, booming across the packed square from tannoys, that raged against the tiny elite who wallowed in luxury as millions struggled with the humiliation of poverty.
Shaaban, a tall, wiry father of two with a thin moustache, said he knew nothing of the uprising when he arrived.
“When I stood next to the protesters, I realized they were talking about my own rights… I realized what freedom of expression really meant and I decided to stay.”
One year on, Mubarak is on trial and Egyptians have held their first free elections in six decades. Islamists lead a new parliament promising to work for the downtrodden and emboldened rights campaigners are challenging the ruling generals to entrench social justice.
But the poor whose anger galvanized the revolt are frustrated and fearful. The uprising had raised hopes for a more comfortable existence that are now being brutally dashed.
Food prices are still soaring, work for itinerant laborers has dried up, workshops have gone silent and factories that laid off employees are still not hiring.
Mubarak’s legacy is a country of 80 million in which one fifth of the population struggles by with $2 a day, many of them working in a huge parallel economy where job security is absent.
The political turmoil sparked by his overthrow tipped tourism and business activity into crisis and hunger is emerging as a new threat to this nascent democracy.
“I used to have a shave every week at the barber’s, but now I want to save the LE 10 I must pay him. I have to choose between shaving and eating,” Shaaban said.
Sayda Aisha, a community of historic mosques, tumbledown apartment buildings, crumbling colonial villas and small workshops in the heart of Cairo is known for its skilled craftsmen who rely on the building trade to feed their families.
A group of local men gather to tell visiting reporters of their frustrations.
A nervous man in his 60s, wandering the neighborhood trying to sell bread from a plastic tray, stops to listen, then weeps as he tells of the hardship he endures.
“People are getting laid off, sitting around with nothing to do. A revolution should make life easier. It should rebuild,” said Ahmed Abdel-Khaleq, 48, a ceramics workshop owner. “Ever since the revolution happened, I can’t get my loaf of bread.”
He said he was forced to close his workshop after the uprising stalled activity on construction sites across Egypt.
Business leaders were hoping six months ago that the worst of the crisis was over but are now more despondent than ever.
Some workers at big industrial firms used the wave of revolt to extract better pay and conditions from their employers, but their strikes deepened the impression of an economy in chaos, undermining investor confidence.
Around 1,000 manufacturers, many of them reliant on a crisis-ridden construction sector, have shut up shop and idled their workers on lower pay, industry executives say.
“The market is very weak and each day things get worse. There is no work. Hardly anyone is buying or selling,” said Mohamed Said Hanfy of the Chamber of Metallurgical Industries, who said his members were operating at 50 percent of capacity.
Cairo’s middle class is also feeling the pinch.
Engineer Moustafa Hussein, 55, was laid off from his real estate firm after it froze all projects in Egypt.
“I now have no source of income, and I have three children to support, one with a disability,” he said. “I have looked for jobs everywhere but had no luck. The only solution I have is to sell my apartment so that I can feed my family.”
Among Egypt’s poorest, solidarity often tempers a precarious existence.
As incomes dwindled in Sayda Aisha, the workshop where Shaaban worked closed down. His neighbors built him a workshop of his own where he now fixes their cars for half price.
But their gesture cannot make up for his slumping income.
Fatmah Al-Sayid, a 46-year-old mother of four, crosses the road from the sun-drenched yard of her small house where hens peck and a donkey drinks from a trough.
“In this neighborhood, people used to distribute meat and Ramadan sweets … but now they stopped because they can no longer afford to help,” she said. “No one lends to anyone anymore because they are afraid of what’s coming.”
For some, the discomfort of poverty is an acceptable price to pay for freedom.
“Money doesn’t matter. I can eat stones as long as I live a free man,” said sailor Ahmed Mahmoud, 51. “This revolution has restored my dignity and freedom and this is a price I am willing to pay.”
“As good as dead”
Though incomes are depressed and there is scant sign that businesses are hiring, inflation appears out of control.
Urban consumer price growth quickened to 9.5 percent in the 12 months to December from 9.1 percent in November, driven by dearer food. The central bank blames supply bottlenecks and distribution channel distortions.
Years of steep price rises were seen as a main driver of last year’s uprising.
Fears have grown that the government, scrambling to finance the budget deficit, will rein in subsidies on essential foods, fuel and electricity, something officials repeatedly deny.
Some blamed hoarding in anticipation of price rises for fuel shortages last week that led to long queues at petrol stations.
Dwindling foreign reserves have raised fears of a decline in the Egyptian pound that would further inflate the price of imports of food and other vital goods.
The poor of Sayda Aisha have little time for the Islamists who swept the parliamentary vote promising to champion the cause of Egypt’s downtrodden.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the new assembly, has many skeptics in the neighborhood, residents say, because its officials failed to honor a promise to help renovate their crumbling, historic mosque.
“We’re as good as dead here. We want officials to come and see with their own eyes how we are living,” said a 39 year old tile worker also called Ahmed Mahmoud.
Some plan to make the journey to Tahrir again on Wednesday, Jan. 25, the anniversary of the start of the uprising that many Egyptians say remains unfinished, to join protests against the army now ruling Egypt.
“Those were our sons and daughters who were killed in Tahrir and their blood should not be spilled in vain,” said the sailor, Mahmoud.