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Growing food, fuel shortages add to discontent in Egypt

Egyptians queue up in a Cairo supermarket as they stock food for the coming days after anti-government protesters called for an indefinite strike in Egypt upping the stakes in their bid to topple President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Bob Moon: The Egyptian government vowed today to open a dialogue with all political forces. And it says a key demand voiced by opponents of President Hosni Mubarak will be on the table: Constitutional and legislative reforms.

But before that can begin, there are more immediate issues to resolve: Growing shortages of everything from food to fuel, which could make the troubles there worse before they get better. New York Times reporter Nicholas Kulish is watching developments in Alexandria, Egypt. Thanks for joining us.

Nicholas Kulish: Great to be here.

Moon: We've been hearing that growing prices for food staples have been adding to the overall sense of discontent in that region for some time now. Now you're reporting that the political crisis could quickly become a serious humanitarian problem. Tell us what kind of shortages you're seeing there.

Kulish: Well, you know, you're seeing shortages in all the basic foot staples. People are buying what they can off the shelves, but distribution has been affected and there's a bit of panic setting in as well.

Moon: And the big thing, I understand, is bread. Egyptians are the world's top consumers of bread and Egypt is the world's biggest wheat importer.

Kulish: That's true. The government is doing everything it can to keep the subsidized bread coming out of strategic supplies. There are reports that that isn't working entirely, but there a lot of other serious issues. Today and tomorrow are payday here, but the banks have been closed since Friday. Basically, a lot of Egyptians that live day to day, week to week, just aren't getting the money they need to survive.

Moon: And I understand that some ATMs are running out of money?

Kulish: I think you could say most ATMs have completely run out of money. I was actually told today about a gentleman who was specially sent by his bank to fill up an ATM, and he was there for two hours and the money was empty again when he was leaving. It's just the people came and took it as fast as it showed up. All over the city, ATMs are just plain out.

Moon: Is there any more sign of stability at the ports or is it still chaos?

Kulish: Well the port itself is very stable. There's a tank sitting in front of it and basically nothing goes in through the front gates and nothing comes out of the front gates. Meanwhile the containers just stack up there because the companies would rather pay the fees for storage than take the risk of losing it on the roads.

Moon: And is the unrest -- the fear of violence -- causing any problems with deliveries, that sort of thing?

Kulish: Absolutely. I spoke to the head of a distribution company today that has 350 trucks and one of his trucks was burned outside a police station and he said, "My trucks aren't going anywhere." He said, "The safety of my employees comes first." And this is a guy whose trucks deliver water and diapers.

Moon: Which leads me to the question about gasoline supplies. We usually don't think of gasoline shortages in the Middle East.

Kulish: Not the stations that we've talked to. A lot of them just have barricades up and don't let any customers in. And the few -- I'm thinking, we drove around Alexandria today and saw one that had gas and there was a four lane line, each lane 20 lines long I guess, so really that tells you something about the situation.

Moon: And does this increase the risk of a backlash if people can't put bread on the table, if they can't get gasoline to get around?

Kulish: Well, a backlash, I assume you mean against the protest movement?

Moon: Well, either direction, I guess.

Kulish: I mean, what we're seeing talking to regular people is that they still want the government to step down and that they're sort of blaming it on them. But it is sort of an irony that economic discontent was driving a lot of this and now things are only getting worse.

Moon: Nicholas Kulish is watching developments in Alexandria, Egypt, for the New York Times. Thank you for joining us.

Kulish: Thanks a lot for having me.

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