Post-revolution Egypt: Not much better and about to get worse for the poor

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    A view from above of the shantytown in central Cairo where Naima Mohamed says she has lived for 45 years. She says life in the slum is even worse now than it was before the revolution. 

    - Kimberly Adams

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    29-year-old Amr Thabet, a bakery supervisor, sells loaves of government-subsidized aish baladi (local bread) to residents of a low-income neighborhood in central Cairo.

    - Kimberly Adams

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    Loaves of aish baladi, local Egyptian bread, comes fresh out of the oven at a bakery selling government-subsidized bread in central Cairo. Each piece of bread is costs less than 1 cent. With unemployment climbing and the currency value falling, more and more people are depending on subsidized goods. But the Egyptian government is seeking a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, which will require a trimming of Egypt's generous subsidy program. 

    - Kimberly Adams

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    29 year-old Amr Thabet (left), a bakery supervisor, says daily regular power outages, which the government blames on fuel shortages, force him to shut down. His bakery distributes government-subsidized bread, which costs less than 1 cent per loaf. Thabet says sometimes, in the heat, the power outages spoils the bread dough, since they can't get it baked fast enough. 

    - Kimberly Adams

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    Naima Mohamed (left), with her two daughters, Nadia (center), and Hoda (right). The family is worried local neighborhood thugs will force them out of their two-room home at any time. They say the police, who largely withdrew from the streets after Egypt's revolution and are just now starting to come back, refuse to help them.

    - Kimberly Adams

The economic downtown that followed Egypt's uprising continues to make difficult circumstances even worse for the country's poor. This is especially evident in the hundreds of slums and shantytowns in Egyptian capital Cairo, and around the rest of country. Such informal housing is home to an estimated 16 million people — many without basic services like plumbing, garbage collection, or security.

Naima Mohamed, who can't quite recall if she's 65 or 70, says she's lived in her two-room home in small Cairo shantytown for 45 years. In those decades, she's watched apartment buildings and offices climb up around her, offering spectacular Nile views. In her neighborhood, though, piles of garbage fill crooked alleyways, and corrugated metal roofs balance on haphazard dwellings made of leftover building materials.

Mohamed bursts into tears when asked how her neighborhood has fared since the revolution. She and her daughter keep their voices down as they complain about the local toughs who took over the small slum after the revolution.

“I'm fed up,” says Mohamed. “The thugs want us out and they fight with us.” She points to the bathroom, saying thugs broke in and stole the bathroom door. Her daughter, Nadia Mohamed, says in one of the fights, their neighbors attacked them with knives and acid.

“Where's the government!?”she shouts, before her mother asks her to keep her voice down. “It's been two years since the revolution ... no security, no safety, nothing.”

The Egyptian government says at least 420 of the officially acknowledged slums are unsafe for human habitation. In some neighborhoods, rockslides crush homes and residents, and in others, shoddy buildings erected without permits collapse on a regular basis. In Mohamed's neighborhood, there is visible evidence not everyone has a bathroom.

But Yahia Shawkat* of the Egyptian Intitiave for Personal Rights says the fact that these homes even exist hide the scope of the issue. “Egypt doesn't necessarily have a homeless problem,” he says, “but on the other hand the people who do live in structures, those stuctures aren't necessarily good to live in.”

Shawkat also points out that high unemployment and a bad investment climate since the revolution mean people who have extra cash can stash it in real estate, but prices are still too high for most Egyptians. A recent report from the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights says there are more than six million empty housing units  — real ones, not shacks  in Cairo alone.

Food prices are up as well, pushing more of Egypt's poor to depend on subisdized goods like the classic aish baladi, local bread. But, at the same time, the country's plummeting currency reserves and rising deficits tax the new government's ability to maintain its generous subsidy program. Wheat supplies seem safe for now, but shortages in the fuel used to keep power plants running has caused regular power outages throughout the country, with many businesses and residents in the capital Cairo facing disruptions and discomfort in the sweltering summer heat.

Egypt is trying to get a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, but cutting subsidies is a big part of the negotiations. That means prices for things like cooking fuel, gasoline, and electrity are going up.

Naima Mohamed fell into another fit of sobs explaining the electricity bill for her cramped, but clean, home had skyrocketed to 35 Egyptian Pounds (L.E.) a month. That's about $5. She and her daughter say they have lost hope for the “bread, freedom, and social justice” promised by the revolution. “We said, 'after the revolution, everything will improve'”, says Nadia. “But it turns to be worse, nothing changes.”

Through her tears, the elederly Naima Mohamed adds, “The rich are still rich and the poor can't speak, we can't.”

The government says its going to implement a new property tax on the wealthy and that some of that money will go towards revitalizing slums, but a new parliament has to be elected first, and the date for that election is yet to be set.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Yahia Shawkat's name. The text has been corrected.

About the author

Kimberly Adams covers politics and general news for Marketplace from the Washington, D.C. Bureau.


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