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Egypt's poor cannot afford a revolution

As disruptions continue and activists still gather in Tahrir Square to press demands for democratic reforms, the working class see their livelihood dwindle.

August 02, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • A demonstrator is carried away by residents as they help the military to clear Tahrir Square of the remaining protesters as the month of Ramadan starts.
A demonstrator is carried away by residents as they help the military to… (Mohamed Abd El Ghany, Reuters )

Reporting from Cairo — Sayed Hussein Sayed sits low in a broken truck. His wife is having their first child soon and no one is bringing him tires to fix. He's running out of money.

"The country," he says, "is falling apart."

The neighborhood plumber shakes his head

"I've got five kids to feed but work is down 30%," says Kamel Fouad, whose grandfather started the family business decades ago. "I could bear it during the first month of the revolution. I borrowed from neighbors. But nobody has any money left. The revolution's gone on too long."

Street sweepers whisk away the shattered glass from a recent protest. No one knows what to do with the burned car on the corner. An alley over from Fouad's shop, two men repair the windshield of Abdel Moussa's car, battered by stones during a clash between antigovernment demonstrators and thugs.

"Enough is enough," says Moussa, his hands gliding over dents. "These protests must stop. It's sabotage."

The solidarity around the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February is splintering amid deep differences between protesters and millions of struggling Egyptians exasperated by the unrest and its economic consequences. The split reveals how young activists plotting rebellion in cyberspace are disconnected from the anxieties of millworkers and laborers. The nation that inspired the Arab world's pro-democracy fervor has become a land of bitterness and divided hopes.

Protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square and demands on the interim ruling military council for political reform have won concessions and are considered by activists as the surest strategy to achieve the revolution's goals. For many, though, they have become dangerous distractions at a time of widening unemployment, dwindling tourism and a shaky stock market.

On Monday, army and police forces tore down tents and cleared Tahrir Square of about 200 die-hard protesters, ending a three week sit-in that had dwindled over the weekend, when most political parties and dissident groups left the square before the start of the holy month of Ramadan. Gunshots overhead and tanks moving toward the square as protesters scurried were the latest provocative images for those craving a degree of normalcy.

During Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule, the poor and working class were reluctant to rise up for fear that arrests and chaos would cost them the tenuous jobs that sustained their families. That sentiment prevails today as men like Sayed balance the aspirations of democracy and civil rights against the immediate concern of bringing home dinner.

"It doesn't seem to be about politics or justice anymore," Sayed says. "I don't know if the protesters have a hidden agenda or not. If they have a problem with the military, that's fine. But they should not damage other people's interests. We need to give the military time. The universe wasn't created in a day."

A university graduate who didn't have the connections to find a desk job while Mubarak was in power, Sayed started repairing tires. He supports a number of the protesters' causes. But he senses anger and recrimination jeopardize Egypt's transition to democracy. He and Fouad believe the military has good intentions yet also acknowledge that the generals must allow reform and punish the sins of the past.

"I trust the military. It has always protected the country," Fouad says. "But, yes, something has to be done about bringing former Mubarak officials to justice."

The revolution swept through their Abbasiya neighborhood last weekend. Men with rocks and clubs — some of them from the neighborhood — swarmed out of side streets and attacked thousands of protesters marching toward the Defense Ministry. Fouad and Sayed, who was cut by flying glass, hurried to protect their homes and shops amid flashes of gasoline bombs.

"The people in here are not thugs. We know the protesters didn't come here to cause trouble," says Fouad. "We don't know who started the violence, but some people on these streets weren't happy about what was going on and they saved what was theirs."

Fouad sits on a stone in the shade. Politics have little resonance here. The manifestoes of the activists sound good, but there are more pressing matters at hand. The building his shop is in has been condemned. He must move. He doesn't know where, but he's sure his 11-year-old son, Mustafa, will not inherit his hacksaws and wrenches.

There is no point in protesting about this; it is the way of things in a neighborhood that in the late 1800s was as posh as any in Cairo but has since given up many of its streets to the poor. Fouad's friend Rami Aladdin has already been evicted from the building. Aladdin's furniture was stacked on the street when the clashes erupted. His arms and chest are raw with the cuts and scrapes of fighting people off.

"This is not the way to make Egypt better," says Aladdin, standing against the cracked door of a borrowed room.

The workers in Abbasiya take home what they earn each day. It's afternoon and Fouad has no business. He answers the call to prayer, hurrying down the street to the mosque. His son perches on the stone. Sayed sits in the broken truck. He has the black hands of his trade but these days he wishes they were grimier. He waits for a tire or a crooked rim to fix.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.

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