BEIRUT

Middle East

Egypt’s poor long for help as new president sworn in

Egyptians shout slogans and hold portraits of Egypt’s former army chief and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as they take part in celebrations in front of the presidential palace of Ethadya in the capital Cairo on June 8, 2014, after Sisi was sworn in. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED

CAIRO: A few hundred meters from the fluttering flags, patriotic songs and dancing crowds outside the constitutional court where Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was sworn in as Egypt’s president Sunday, the mood was decidedly downbeat.

In the Dar al-Salam slum, frowning, pensive men sat on stools on a cracked sidewalk surrounded by crumbling bare brick buildings, hoping to be picked up by contractors, their hammers and picks beside them.

The lucky ones get a day of back-breaking work for meager pay.

Unemployment, low wages and poverty triggered the 2011 revolt that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak but delivered few tangible benefits, making Egyptians skeptical of their leaders.

“The revolution happened and we haven’t seen a thing. I hope the situation will improve, but God only knows,” said Ahmad Mohammad, 57, his face worn by 30 years of toiling on construction sites to try to support his three children.

Stagnation has dragged on since former army chief Sisi ousted Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood last summer after mass protests against his rule. While official figures put unemployment at around 13 percent, the real figure is widely believed to be far higher.

The calls for bread, freedom and social justice which fired up the revolt that removed Mubarak and rang out against Morsi could also become Sisi’s nightmare if he does not move fast to fix high unemployment and a widening budget deficit.

The unemployed day laborers sit on the same stools, on the same sidewalk, year after year. None seemed confident Sisi was the leader who would finally reach out to them.

Egypt’s Gulf Arab allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have given Egypt more than $12 billion in cash and petroleum products since Morsi’s fall.

But none of that seems to have trickled down to the poor, who represent one in four of the population living on less than $1.65 a day.

Some, like Ghazzawi Mostafa, a 26-year-old father of two, fear history is repeating itself: domination by the wealthy while the less fortunate go unnoticed.

“The state is still the same. We’re always the bums sitting on the sides of the street,” Mostafa said. He makes around 200 Egyptian pounds ($27.97) a month on odd jobs.

Officials forecast economic growth at just 3.2 percent in the fiscal year that begins July 1, well below levels needed to crate enough jobs for a rapidly growing population of 85 million and ease widespread poverty.

Aside from the country’s financial difficulties, a sore point for many is the inequality in wealth distribution that has been the norm for decades.

Under Mubarak, political and business elites thrived while the poor were neglected, creating a large gap in the distribution of wealth which eventually fueled the 2011 uprising.

A newly implemented minimum wage system guarantees that public sector workers will make at least 1,200 Egyptian pounds a month, but some officials earn far more and in the private sector, wages can reach almost a million pounds a month.

Near the upscale strip of the Corniche in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, where top government officials live, the unpaved alleys of Dar al-Salam exude a putrid smell as puddles of sewage are left to fester for weeks.

Fathi Bayoumi, a 60-year-old tailor, stands in front of his 2-by-4-meter shop. A web of electric wires dangles on the bare red brick wall and connects to a single light bulb above his sewing machine, the only accessory in his shop.

“When I go out of this area and see the difference in lifestyles, I return depressed and not wanting to talk to anyone. There is a huge gap and those people cannot imagine the conditions we are living in,” Bayoumi said.

“There are no officials who visit these areas. They just get their positions and forget about us. People are tired. We say may God help Sisi. I’m hopeful because I have to be so that I can live.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 09, 2014, on page 9.

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