Egypt coping with shortages as protests continue

January 31, 2011

CAIRO - As Cairo residents cope with developing shortages for everyday staples, the opinions in the gas lines are vastly different from those in the bread lines - showing both the middle-class roots of the current unrest and a perhaps surprising residue of support for the current government among Egypt's poorest.

Motorists who manage to find an open station have to join chaotic scrimmages that can last an hour, and it puts them in a bad mood. It's the government's fault, they say.

In contrast, the people waiting at bakeries for government-subsidized bread could at least take solace in the fact that there was still bread to be had - kept affordable, at a penny a loaf, by large government purchases of imported wheat.

Sure, they'd rather be able to pay a bit more, buy bread on the open market and avoid the longer lines and the stigma of the government shops. But what they say they are angry about is Egypt being portrayed as a poor and unstable country, and they defend President Hosni Mubarak as a regional champion.

"Hosni Mubarak is the champion of war and the champion of peace and the protector of Egypt," said one man a few steps from Tahrir Square, where the demonstrations against Mubarak's regime continued Monday.

Across town, a little while later, came a similar sentiment from a buyer who was waiting with hundreds of others to purchase bread, and who wouldn't give his name because he said he stood for all Egyptians. "Write this," the man said. "Egypt is a very great country."

But with the banks closed and the Internet shut down after a week of demonstrations, Egypt is also a country where business is beginning to stutter a bit.

Lines are often long at the government-subsidized bread stores - a well-accepted fact of life for those who depend on the round, flat loaves for their subsistence. But now other staples - and especially fuel - are starting to become scarce, with what may be a greater effect on a middle class that is more dependent on their cars than the poor and more likely to have a job affected by a collapse in the local economy.

Gasoline shortages and rumors of worse to come are causing car owners to fill up even when they don't need to, leading to even tighter supplies.

"I blame everyone who has caused this disaster. I mean the people in the government," an exasperated Ahmad Haroun said as he jockeyed his Toyota closer to the pumps at a Misr gas station in the comfortable neighborhood of Mohandiseen. He'd already been there for an hour.

"They're going to face a big problem if they can't get gas distributed in the next few days," he said.

At another station nearby, there were no lines because there was no gas. The last delivery was on Friday, and the pumps ran dry at 1 p.m. Sunday.

"Our source of livelihood has been cut off," said manager Sabri Saqer. "The truck driver was scared to come. Now I'm told a truck is on the way. But as soon as we open, we'll be jammed with cars, because people are afraid."

Saqer said he doesn't fault the protests for plunging the country into trouble.

"The Interior Ministry is to blame,'' he said. "The demonstrators are not the ones who cut off the Internet."

Stores up and down his street had been smashed by looters over the weekend; all were closed. One resident said the marauders had found a stash of liquor in one store and downed it all. Residents said they believed it was the police, or their hired guns, who had done it.

Hassan Hegazy, chairman of an import company called Master Trading, as well as the director of the Egyptian-American Business Council, said Monday that Egyptian companies so far were working around the bank closure, managing their cash closely.

The relatively few retailers that are open, mostly on the peripheries of Cairo, told him Monday that they have so far been able to replenish their supplies.

At the same time, Hegazy added that fuel shortages were threatening to hinder deliveries in the week ahead.

"I don't know how they're going to solve that in the next few days," he said. He has heard, he said, that fuel companies may start to send out their trucks after curfew, when in theory the streets should be safer.

The New Market, in Mohandiseen, hasn't had any chickens for a week. The manager, who asked not to be identified, said he normally sells 50 to 100 a day. "People are angry. They're angry because things aren't coming," he said. "Mubarak is responsible."

Even in the bread lines, where support for Mubarak was strong, people acknowledged that they were starting to hoard supplies in case the situation deteriorates.

"There's no problem," said Mohamed Maharan. "But people are worried."

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