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In Egypt, the poor make a living off subsidized propane

In Cairo, crowds wait to fill cylinders with subsidized cooking gas, which they sell on the black market. The earnings help them scrape by amid rising prices.

April 17, 2012|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • For some Egyptians, selling subsidized cooking gas is a way to put food on the table.
For some Egyptians, selling subsidized cooking gas is a way to put food on… (Bernat Armangue, Associated…)

CAIRO — They trundle like a lost parade, rolling metal cylinders through the dust beneath the broken cliffs rising above the City of the Dead.

Mothers in sandaled feet hurry girls along to buy cheap propane cooking gas. Boys haul cylinders on slanted motorcycles, others balance them on their heads or fasten them to donkeys. The cylinders multiply, bobbing in the fortuneless air, which fills with ping and clatter and the angry whispers of waiting.

"I have five sons. My husband is dead. This is what I do," said Samira Ahmed Ali, who fills a cylinder with subsidized gas here for 7 pounds ($1.16) and hawks the fuel on the black market for 9 pounds ($1.49). "I didn't sell any cylinders yesterday. If I can earn 10 pounds a day I'm happy. That's the best I can hope for. If not, I'll clean somebody's house or beat the dirt from their carpet."

She stands next to Mahasse Saleh, who sweats beneath a black hijab, indifferent to the eavesdropping man with the crumpled cigarette and the cop waiting for a kickback.

"I sell propane, food for sheep, vegetables. I do whatever I can," Saleh said. "The last few days I barely made any money. People have run out of cash. No one can buy. It's worse than it's ever been."

Across the capital, in the halls of government, the battle goes on for an Egypt tangled in more than a year of revolution and broken promises. The corrupt regime of deposed President Hosni Mubarak has been wiped away; a new president will be elected next month. That rouses little hope in this neighborhood beneath the cliffs, where garbage is sorted and metal is hammered and shaped.

The desperate come before dawn, lining up against a stained wall, waiting for the door to open; inflation, hoarding and shortages have pushed nonsubsidized gas to as much as 30 pounds a cylinder. Lines snake throughout the country. Tempers bristle: Two men died in a gunfight between rival families over cylinders in central Egypt; a boy shot and killed a man who cut in front of him in a line outside Cairo.

No one here has heard a political speech that could change any of that.

"I don't believe in politicians or even in the law anymore," said Ali, whose husband died years ago of liver failure. "A police officer beat me for selling on the black market. Another beat my son. Things will not get better. It's all collapsed. I call what's happened the black revolution. It all went bad."

Saleh breaks in and holds up four fingers.

"Tomatoes cost 1 pound, now 4. Rice cost 2.50 pounds, now 5 pounds," she said, listing a litany of rising prices. She pinches two fingers together, barely a sliver of light between them. This, she said, is how much money she has to feed eight children. She turns away, too proud and too spent to cry.

"I feel sometimes I have to be everyone," said Saleh, who, like Ali, is a widow. "Mother. Father. Whatever is needed."

The great Citadel floats in the smog above her, and beyond, past the Nile, the pyramids stand at the desert's edge. History does not concern her. More women head her way as the late-morning heat settles over the traffic. She looks back to the street.

A boy kicks a cylinder. It gets away from him, a car swerves. A man with thieves on his mind chains his cylinders to a lamppost, telling his family to wait. Laborers load cylinders onto small trucks that drive past minarets the color of sand and cracked tombs in the City of the Dead. Every time the gas door opens, there's a rush of feet, and then, when the door closes, a kind of defeat as the line staggers and re-forms until the door opens again and a few more are allowed to enter.

Each face has a story, a tale that is at once sprawling and intimate, containing the failings of a nation.

"The military police took my son one year ago. They sentenced him to seven years in a prison in Alexandria," said Samia Mohamed Zakaria. "He used to sell tools that brought us money. My husband's a painter but there's been less work since the revolution and he's not the same since they took our boy. He has a problem with his sight and needs operations."

Her face is covered by a veil, except for her eyes, which squint in the sun.

"I have to come here for this gas," she said. "We have rent and debts and other children in school."

A man with an exasperated air and a graying beard walks the perimeter of the wall. He manages things; all, for now, is calm. More small trucks arrive. Men wait. Zakaria and the other women have filled their cylinders. They roll them in the street toward home, except a boy, who tries to carry one, his body straining and tilting beneath the broken cliffs.

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

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