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Exhausted Egyptians count cost of political turmoil

Jan. 9, 2013 10:38 A.M. (Updated: Jan. 10, 2013 10:31 A.M.)
By Shaimaa Fayed and Maria Golovnina

ZAGAZIG, Egypt (Reuters) -- These days, craftsmen, shopkeepers and other inhabitants of the Egyptian Delta town of Zagazig are often too busy making ends meet to ponder why life seems to be getting harder every day.

But when, exhausted, they finally come home and sit down to their evening meal, conversations inevitably turn to growing hardship and the frightening prospect of cuts in food subsidies as the economy slides further into crisis.

With their patience already stretched after years of upheaval, Egyptians - from the capital Cairo to smaller towns like Zagazig - appear to be nearing the point where discontent could explode into a new wave of unrest.

"There is no security. There is nothing," said Soheir Abdel Moneim, a retired school teacher, as she hurried through an open-air market in Zagazig in search of vegetables she could afford.

"The pound is falling. Everything is more expensive. Is there anything that has not become more expensive?" she asked with a shrug, as traders on bicycles loaded with their wares dodged through the chaos of the market.

Nearby, a torn poster of President Muhammad Mursi beams from the wall of a crumbling brick house, with the words "Liars! Liars!" scrawled over his face.

The mood of growing nervousness is bad news for Mursi, who faces a parliamentary election in coming months, and a new round of political feuding that could pitch Egypt back into civil strife.

Egypt's economy, once strong and popular among investors, has been in tatters since the revolt of 2011 that ousted Hosni Mubarak and shook the country to its foundations.

Disagreements over a new national constitution late last year triggered violent protests, dealing another blow to the economy and eroding trust in Mursi's government.

A country where cuts in food subsidies have caused riots in the past now faces the risk of further upheaval as Mursi prepares to impose austerity measures in order to obtain a desperately needed $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

In Zagazig, people worry about the future.

Farouk Sarhan, the 74-year-old manager of a shop selling women's clothes, said sales were already down by almost 50 percent from just a few weeks ago.

"No one is selling or buying. I had more activity last year," he said, stubbing out a cigarette with a deep sigh in his tiny store lined with mannequins of veiled women.

"Customers are not buying as much as before because of the economic situation."

The price of fresh food often goes up in winter but shoppers in the Zagazig market said recent increases had been steep, with tomatoes and cauliflower about 50 percent dearer than at the start of the year.

What next?

Egypt has been on the ropes since investors and tourists fled after the revolt, when people rose up to demand their freedom and also an end to economic policies they said simply lined the pockets of the rich.

On the economic front, the picture remains grim, although Qatar's decision to lend Egypt another $2 billion has offered some respite.

Foreign reserves are dwindling and the pound has been hitting new lows daily. Food and raw materials from abroad have become more expensive, hurting businesses and families in a desert nation which relies on imports to feed itself.

As in other parts of Egypt, people in Zagazig see complex economic trends in terms of the daily hardships they must endure, and it is Mursi's government and his Muslim Brotherhood allies who get the blame.

"Mursi doesn't feel our grievances," said Emad, a man in his late 30s who sells traditional Egyptian clothes by the side of a dusty street. He said he had been forced to raise prices to cover rising costs, upsetting his customers.

Pointing to one of the black embroidered gowns, Emad said: "We used to sell this for 35 pounds ($5.40). Now it's 45 pounds. We didn't raise the prices. Traders did.

"Very few people are buying. I used to sell 50 pieces a day, and now I sell 15 or 20. Today I still haven't sold anything."

Reliable opinion polls are unavailable in Egypt and it is hard to gauge how widespread people's views are. But in Zagazig, most of those interviewed by Reuters echoed Emad's feelings.

Economists worry that continued turmoil could prompt people and businesses to convert their savings into dollars en masse - a risky process known as dollarisation which has caused trouble in many emerging market crises before.

But in Zagazig, people laughed at the idea, saying only the rich could afford to buy foreign currency. "Dollars?" asked Nabil, a local trader, as others burst into laughter. "Give me some dollars! Of course we don't have any!"

Support for Mursi

But some were prepared to give Mursi a chance.

In the nearby village of al-Adwa, where the future president grew up in the family of a local farmer, brick walls and fences were plastered with posters of Mursi.

A crowd of farmers standing by the side of a dirt track cutting through the village shook their fists and shouted "Mursi! Mursi!" when asked about their political views.

But even in Adwa, where Mursi appeared to enjoy rock-solid support, locals said sudden increase in taxes or abrupt cuts to fuel or food subsidies would cost him dearly.

"If that happens that would be the worst thing. What am I going to do as a farmer?" said Said Youssef, his hands black from working the land. "Where are we going to get the money?"

Another man, Aly Saber, 65, said fertiliser prices had gone up by 50 Egyptian pounds in the past year alone, making his business less profitable.

"Things are tough here in the rural areas," he said as others nodded in agreement. "Everything is becoming more expensive."

Mohamed Gamal, the 42-year-old owner of a tiny shop selling kitchen appliances, said business was so bad that he would sometimes go for days without a single customer.

"I import goods all the time. Prices have gone up by 10-40 percent since the revolution. It's gone up even more in recent weeks," said Gamal, who, Like Mursi, grew up in Adwa.

He said his neighbors were suspicious about why he had to keep raising his prices.

"People just don't believe me," he said, hunched over his desk, cigarette smoke swirling above stacks of unsold trays, cups and ironing boards. "They are not convinced why things are getting more expensive. I buy them, and they stack up."

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