CAIRO — Egypt’s economic and social inequalities helped ignite the populist revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak five years ago. Now the economy is on the skids again, as discontent rises in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Food shortages are widespread and prices are soaring. More people are living in poverty and unemployment remains high, especially among the nation’s disenchanted youth. There is a currency crisis, and investor confidence is flagging despite billions of dollars in aid and investment from Persian Gulf nations.
“We cannot find sugar, rice and many other items,” said Ahmad Soliman, a 31-year-old shoemaker. “And when we find them, we cannot afford the prices. So we don’t buy as much as we used to do.”
“The more the pressure is,” he added, “the stronger the outburst will be.”
Whether Egypt’s deepening economic problems trigger another social upheaval remains to be seen. What’s palpable is the frustration directed at President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s government from all corners of society.
The turmoil is affecting not only the poor but also the middle class and, to some extent, even the wealthy.
“We are going through a difficult phase that is being felt by every family in Egypt,” Mostafa Al Naggar, a former member of parliament, wrote recently in Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent daily newspaper. “The state is responsible for social solidarity. God be gentle with the Egyptians.”
In the years before the 2011 uprising, Mubarak’s liberal economic policies spawned a boom in business and the nation enjoyed annual average economic growth rates of 7 percent. But Mubarak failed to address widespread poverty and official corruption, high unemployment and lack of opportunities for young people — reasons that many gave for joining the revolt.
After Mubarak was forced to resign, the elected Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi was also heavily criticized for mishandling the economy and failing to rectify social inequalities as he sought to tighten political control. Sissi, a former general who rose to power after ousting Morsi, pledged to enact economic changes and improve the lives of Egyptians.
Today, inflation has risen to the highest levels in years. There are serious shortages of foreign currency, which is vital to transact global business. Nearly a quarter of the country’s 94 million people live in poverty. The official jobless rate is 13 percent, and triple that among young Egyptians.
The grim economic indicators forced the government to seek a $12 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The loan program comes with strict austerity measures that promise to make Egyptians’ lives even more difficult in the months and years ahead.
In interviews over the weekend with three state-owned newspapers, Sissi said his actions were “inevitable to save the economic situation.”
“We are in the bottleneck and we are on our way out, but if we want to get out, we have to take tough decisions, tolerate these decisions, be patient, and the results will be great for the upcoming days and the upcoming generations,” he said.
The country’s economic problems can be partly blamed on the collapse of its tourism industry and concerns about terrorism. The number of tourists visiting the country, in decline since the Arab Spring revolts, plunged after the downing of a Russian passenger plane last year over the Sinai Peninsula by the Islamic State’s Egypt affiliate and a mysterious crash of an EgyptAir flight over the Mediterranean this year.
Also affecting tourism, a key source of foreign currency, were the torture and murder of an Italian student in Cairo this year and the mistaken killing of Mexican tourists by Egyptian security forces in September 2015.
But critics have also blamed Sissi for grandiose projects that have sucked up billions in aid and taxpayers’ money. They include a large expansion of the Suez Canal, which failed to generate higher shipping revenue, as well as plans for a new, Dubai-like capital city in the desert. He has also proposed a bridge to connect Egypt to Saudi Arabia, but that triggered protests and a legal challenge after Sissi decided to hand back two Red Sea islands to the kingdom.
“I am the one responsible for [this] country, its protection, its future and the future of its sons. If I was just looking for my own interest, there are many things I would not have done,” Sissi said.
In the poor and middle-class Cairo neighborhood of Gamaliyah, where Sissi grew up, the frustration is mounting. In the central market, shoppers complained about the rising prices of electricity and cooking gas as their salaries have remained the same. The weak currency has driven up the prices of imported goods, on which Egypt heavily relies. Many shops and businesses have shuttered.
“I used to load my four trucks with goods to be transported to Upper Egypt and the rural areas. Now we can barely load half a truck,” said Ahmad Mohamed, 29, the owner of a fleet of trucks. “People cannot afford to buy anything anymore.”
“People here do not care who is president,” said a gold and jewelry shop owner. “They only care that they can work and profit under whomever is in power. I used to make much more money three years ago.
“Who can afford to buy gold jewelry now?” he continued, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared his shop might be targeted by robbers or corrupt policemen. “People now can barely afford to buy food.”
Some Sissi supporters praised his policies, saying he had inherited many problems, such as corruption and cronyism, from his predecessors that are still affecting the economy.
“During Morsi’s rule, the country was broken, but now a lot of things have changed for the better,” said a 54-year-old woman. “The prices are our only concern. Sissi is trying his best.”
Some activist groups have publicly called for protests over the deteriorating economy on Nov. 11 — dubbed “11/11” in the media.
In his interviews, Sissi dismissed the possibility of another populist uprising. “Egyptians have more awareness than anyone can imagine,” he said. “So all these efforts exercised by these [anti-state] elements and the people of evil are destined to fail.”
But Soliman said protests “would give people the chance to release all the pressures forcibly placed on them, and may even give them some hope in the future.”
At the very least, they would send a message to Sissi, he said.