Middle East

Cairo prostitute’s tale charts country’s slide to desperation

An Egyptian supporter of presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the country's former military chief, wears a mask with the colors of the national flag as she attends a campaign rally in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, May 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Amira isn’t her real name, though neither is the father on her daughter’s birth certificate. The real man is a client of the Cairo prostitute, who used to sell clothes and then resorted to selling herself. He paid 600 Egyptian pounds ($84) for two hours of pleasure about a year ago after Amira’s life had taken another turn for the worse.

“I hope your life is better than mine,” she recalls whispering to the infant, her second child, as they left the hospital following a birth overseen by bribed medical staff.

While every country has tales of hardship and desperation, Amira, 29, encapsulates the disappointment of her countrymen whose lives instead went further into decline after the euphoria of Egypt’s revolution had captivated the world.

At the start of 2011, as demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square were hastening the departure of President Hosni Mubarak after almost 30 years, she had a job as a store clerk and her elder child, a life she lost as sales collapsed following the uprising. Then came Mohammad Morsi and a more Islamist government, before a coup got rid of him in July last year.

“We are living with the repercussions of a failed revolution,” said Khalil al-Anani, adjunct professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. “This is leading to a lot of despair among youth. A lot of young Egyptians feel betrayed by the political elite and have no sense of hope for the future.”

Aspirations now lie with Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief who led Morsi’s overthrow and whose only rival in a presidential election next week is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi.

Three years after Egypt became the poster child for the Arab Spring uprisings that had started in Tunisia the year before, tens of millions of the country’s 85 million people have seen little change in terms of the poverty, corruption and inertia that festered under Mubarak.

Amira, who asked not to be identified by her real name because of her illicit trade, remembers the optimism as she watched with her now 4-year-old son.

“You saw all those people in Tahrir and it was impossible not to believe it would bring the change we wanted,” said Amira, speaking in her fifth-floor apartment while nursing her 3-month-old daughter, Haneen Hisham, through a mild fever as she lay on a mattress on the floor next to her. “I was alone, with a child, but I still had hope.”

Amira, a slender woman dressed in skin-tight jeans and with light makeup, sees Sisi as a last chance, the man to help bring her back from the life she was thrust into. A poster of him in customary military garb is on the wall.

His success will hinge on the government’s ability as much to create jobs, while the budget deficit hit almost 14 percent of economic output in the last financial year. To do that, reforms on key entitlements such as subsidies on food and energy will be a painful necessity, officials have said.

The unrest that brewed in the months after Mubarak’s ouster hit the economy and people like Amira hard. Her slide into vice and the birth of Haneen are an extreme snapshot of what the next president faces.

She lost her job as sales plunged in the clothing shop where she worked. When her son fell ill, the weeklong stay in a state hospital where cats hunted for scraps left her broke.

Her first client as a prostitute came roughly three months after Amira’s divorce, which followed Mubarak’s February 2011 ouster by two months. She said she walked out on her then-husband after she caught him in bed with her best friend.

“I knew I’d hit the bottom,” said Amira, who makes in an hour what she got paid in a month at the store. “It’s the money you hope will pull you back up.”

With medical bills mounting and tourists who pay for prostitutes in dollars or Saudi riyals steering clear, Amira began to sell her furniture in early 2012.

First to go was the sofa set for 1,200 pounds.

At that time, a new path out of the growing chaos gripping Egypt was emerging in the form of the election of Morsi. His pledges to be a “president for all Egyptians” were dismissed by secularists, activists and others who found little comfort in what he claimed were accomplishments such as stemming price increases in mangoes. Other food costs were climbing.

“I needed a job, not fruit,” Amira said. “I needed a way out of this life so that I could live like a human being and raise my son properly.”

As clashes between secularists and Islamists spread, protests became angrier, and the corpses piled up. Morsi stressed his legitimacy as the country’s first freely elected civilian president. The Egyptian pound lost 8.4 percent in 2013, the most in a decade, and Amira sunk deeper each day into a life she never thought she’d live.

They fought for power and “supposedly for our revolution, but we, the people who live miserable lives, were forgotten,” she said.

“Nothing had changed. It’s still a country where everyone has to fend for themselves.”

Morsi’s July 2013 ouster by the military after a mass protest days earlier rekindled hope for some Egyptians, including Amira. It also led to the bloodiest period in the country’s recent history. Security forces killed 10 militants in Sinai over the past 48 hours, the state-run Ahram Gate reported Friday.

Instead of the portly, bearded U.S. trained engineer-turned-president, Sisi arrived in a pressed military uniform and calm demeanor. He exuded confidence, Amira said. The military crackdown on the Brotherhood, though, left hundreds of Morsi supporters dead and thousands more put on trial, including the former president.

Unluckily for Amira, the authorities also started trying to clean up the streets of illegal activities.

With little hiring in the stores where she had once worked, she sold her kitchen cabinets. Then, as her pregnancy got tougher, next went the bed.

Still tired after the birth three months ago, Amira looks at her daughter and son on mattresses and then up at the poster of Sisi.

“Don’t deceive us,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 24, 2014, on page 12.




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