Cash-starved Egyptians turn on each other

For more than a week, Zaki Abdel-Aziz had been out of work and nearly out of money, joining millions of Egyptians living more on hope than cash as the capital plunged into chaos and the economy ground to a virtual halt.

His wife and three children were hungry, tired and tense. There was just over $17 (100 pounds) in their apartment, and no way to borrow more. Then a chilling call came Tuesday night.

"The guy asked me, 'Zaki, you haven't worked for a week, right? You don't have money?'" Abdel-Aziz, 45, recalled. "He said, 'Come out tomorrow and you'll get 100 pounds and a bag of food. All you have to do is join us against those traitors in Tahrir."

Abdel-Aziz, who works in a government records office, angrily rebuffed the offer. "I'm hungry, but I won't sell my soul to eat," he said. On Wednesday, supporters of President Hosni Mubarak converged on Tahrir Square in central Cairo, fighting deadly battles with protesters who seek the Egyptian leader's ouster.

The protests engulfing Cairo since Jan. 25 have shuttered businesses, forced factories to halt operations, closed banks and the stock exchange, and limited suppliers' ability to restock store shelves. Three days into February, many salaries have not been paid, even as rents are due. The price of some basic goods has spiked over 50 percent and other products have started to disappear from shelves.

The shortages and price increases are adding to the economic pinch that many protesters say was among the key catalysts for joining the demonstrations. But they have also fueled anger, both at the government and the protesters, pitting Egyptian against Egyptian.

Anti-government protesters allege that some of those who attacked them in Tahrir Square were paid to do so. And some Egyptians are losing patience with the demonstrators, saying Mubarak's offer not to run for office again was a major concession.

"Enough," said Mamdouh Sweilam, a mechanic who has been out of work since the first day of the unrest. "Like them, I want to be able to live, to earn a decent salary. But this isn't living."

"The hope for democracy isn't going to put food on the table right now," he said.

Before the protests, Egyptians had complained of low salaries and rising costs. Analysts say the roughly 17 percent annual inflation in food prices will remain a key challenge, even if Mubarak steps aside.

The unrest has only exacerbated the problem.

Staples like bread, lentils and rice have spiked by as much as 80 percent in some neighborhoods. Inexpensive Egyptian pasta has largely disappeared from others. Cigarette prices have spiked by at least 50 percent for some brands.

In Ma'sara, an impoverished neighborhood near Cairo's notorious Torah prison, residents complained the only things available in the local market were potatoes, tomatoes and onions, and prices have nearly quadrupled since the protests began. Residents say fighting has broken out over the lack of food, with some threatening the shopkeepers at knifepoint to get them to lower their prices.

And prices are likely to continue climbing. The depreciation in the Egyptian pound has typically been accompanied by price spikes.

"Tourism? It's dead. Foreigners coming to start businesses? Forget it," said civil servant Kamal Abdel-Hamid, who blamed both camps in Egypt's struggle. "This country's economy has been set back 50 years."

Dubai-based port operator DP World said Thursday the Sokhna port it operates on Egypt's Red Sea coast, near the southern entrance of the Suez Canal, has reopened after being shut earlier in the week because of the protests.

Other companies have resumed operations, though many factories remained shut. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that the government's shutdown of the Internet for several days cost Egypt $90 million.

The losses are likely to climb as the world absorbs images of thousands fleeing this nation that relies heavily on tourism.

Egypt's new finance minister, Sameer Radwan, told the Arabic satellite news network Al-Arabiya that the stock exchange's current losses have far exceeded those it sustained during the global financial meltdown in 2008, though he did not provide a figure. The market is down about 21 percent since the start of January, shedding roughly 17 percent in the two days in which trading was held last week.

The government has taken steps to ease the economic pain.

It has set up a compensation fund of more than $680 million for businesses damaged in the protests, and said it began distributing the pensions and salaries of over 1 million state employees via ATM machines at the branches of three local banks. It has also released goods from customs without requiring the prepayment of duties in a bid to allow businesses to restock.

For some Egyptians, the time for protest is over.

The demonstrators "say that we've waited patiently for 30 years for change and it won't hurt to wait a bit more," said Reem Nasser, a 32-year-old housewife who was out early in Cairo hoping to find shops that had restocked or reopened.

"But what do I tell my children? Wait for a month for your breakfast?" she said. "This needs to stop now."