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Away from Egypt's protests, the worries mount

'The country is falling apart. We're going to hell,' says a tailor in his Cairo shop. Prolonged civil strife between Islamists and secularists is the fear.

November 29, 2012|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • An Egyptian protester reads a newspaper next to tents pitched in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Supporters of President Mohamed Morsi plan to hold a major rally this weekend.
An Egyptian protester reads a newspaper next to tents pitched in Cairo's… (Khalil Hamra / Associated…)

CAIRO — Amid thimbles, pins and strands of silver thread, the tailor twitched his pencil-perfect mustache in disgust and said the country where he learned to sew and raised six children was edging into darkness.

"I'm worried," said Sayed Abdelwahab, leaning on a worn counter in a shop where he has mended suits for decades. "I have employees with three and four kids. I'm responsible for them. My customers are mostly foreigners, but they're leaving the country. My business is down 50%. Did you see what happened to the stock market?"

"It's Morsi," said his friend Awad Abdelhafez, a porter, referring to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. "He's taken all the power.... Who's responsible for those dying in this violence?"

Such was the talk Thursday on a shaded street in a Cairo neighborhood far from the protest banners in Tahrir Square and the political intrigue over a new constitution. After nearly two years marked by endless clashes and skies tinged with tear gas, the true Egypt is slipping deeper into its worries.

The ragged semblance of democracy that emerged from the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak is dominated by Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. The opposition can fill the streets with demonstrators and slogans but so far lacks the momentum to unseat Islamists in the fight for the nation's character.

But on this street, where butcher knives flash quick and women sell dusty oranges stacked in pyramids, such thoughts seem strange abstractions. But then, so does the recent revelation by Morsi to Time magazine that he found the movie "Planet of the Apes" to be politically instructive. Heads shake in weary unison.

"I'm so worried and depressed I can't follow things anymore," said Dina Mohamed, a call center operator. "Morsi's been ruling us for four months but he's mixing the wrong ingredients. I'm scared we're facing a hunger revolution. The poor will rise up for bread, not politics or culture, but for their own lives."

This in a nation where the average annual income is reported to be about $4,000. More than 40% of the population lives on $2 a day. The revolution has not improved these statistics, and to many Egyptians, that is its central failing. All the promises that have echoed from mosques, political rallies and television studios have drifted past them like smoke.

The deeper worry is about prolonged civil strife between Islamists and secularists over how deeply Islam will be embedded in public life. This is the fierce debate that the country knew for generations had to come. But now that it has suddenly arrived, the sides have hardened to the point where even Mubarak loyalists have joined their onetime foes, the leftists, to take on Morsi and other Islamists.

"I respect Morsi very much," said Mahmoud Hashem, stepping out from behind the counter of a juice shop. He wears a beard and, as is customary for conservative Muslims, does not look an unveiled woman in the eye. "We elected him. He needs to make decisions as a president, and whether they're right or wrong we have to stand by him. We chose him for four years. He must be given a chance."

But then, step into the tailor's shop, a box of a place with mannequins in the window wearing half-finished jackets, pins in shoulders, strips of fabric whirling on the floor. Abdelwahab has been here since 1966. He started in the trade even before that, when he was 13, after his parents died and he quit school "because I had to look after myself."

That was a few years after Gamal Abdel Nasser, a charismatic army officer, led the 1952 revolution that won Egypt its independence, eventually leading to President Anwar Sadat's peace treaty with Israel, the rise of Mubarak and, Abdelwahab scoffed, the era of Morsi.

"It was good under Nasser and Sadat," he said. "It was good under Mubarak for the first 20 years, but the last 10, when he gave his son more power and started privatization, things started going bad."


"Worst time of all," he said. "The country is falling apart. We're going to hell."

Abdelhafez, the porter, nodded.

A man sewing upstairs, yelled down, "Half of us are slaves!"

"The people in Tahrir Square will never be slaves," said Abdelwahab. "They are fighting."

The men talked, voices rising and falling in an afternoon cool with the coming winter. Would the military step in again like it did immediately after Mubarak's fall? Would the stock market rebound? Would those killing the protesters be prosecuted? Why is it that every time U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits Cairo, as she did last week to help seal a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, something bad happens shortly after? (The porter's eyebrows danced at the question.) Why isn't the Muslim Brotherhood open to different views, different ways of seeing things?

So many discussions. But there was work to do, even if many of Abdelwahab's clients had left the country and there were only a few bags of ruffled shirts needing a needle and thread, a steam and a pressing.

This weekend, the Brotherhood has promised a huge rally in Cairo to support Morsi and pressure the protesters in Tahrir.

The porter and the tailor glanced at each other.

"We are entering a dangerous weekend," said Abdelhafez, who left his friend's shop and crossed the street, passing a man yelling into his cellphone. "The Islamists want to pass this constitution!" the man said. "They want to make this country their own!"

Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.

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