‘No Glimmers of Hope’: Two Years After Egypt’s Revolution, an Economic Crisis Looms

Cairo Slums

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images

A boy runs along cliffs in the Manshiet Nasser slums on the outskirts of Cairo

Ramadan Khalaf Amin, 24, a microbus driver who earns the equivalent of $4.50 a day, is one of the myriad faces of the Egyptian revolution the world does not know. “I was going down to Tahrir the whole time,” Amin remembers of the uprising, whipping out a cell phone to play a video of a demonstrators chanting, “Down with Hosni Mubarak!”

On a recent Friday, Amin was parked at the noisy junction where the ramshackle brick buildings of the Manshiet Nasser district meet the main highway, one of many such points where commuters make the crossing from Cairo’s unplanned, helter-skelter slums into the government-planned districts of the city. It was at this intersection where, during the uprising, demonstrators set fire to the local government offices.

(MORE: Cairo’s New Normal: Protests Spawn a World of Walls and Barricades)

With the two-year anniversary of the revolt approaching, Egypt’s economy is struggling, and the new Muslim Brotherhood–backed government is far from resolving the manifold problems of poverty and urban deprivation that bubbled beneath the 2011 revolt. If anything, a rapidly dropping currency combined with austerity measures mandated by international lenders means that life is only going to get harder for the middle class and the poor in the coming months.

Amin’s parents migrated to Cairo from the Upper Egypt town of Asyut years ago in search of work. He was born in Cairo and lived his whole life in Manshiet Nasser, dropping out of school after the fourth grade. Amin is actually faring better than many in his neighborhood. The family moved into recently built subsidized housing. He earns more than the quarter of Egypt’s 80 million people surviving on just a dollar and a half a day, according to government figures released in 2012.

He despairs at lacking government services in his neighborhood and the slow pace of change since the revolt. “I don’t think this area will ever change,” he says, referring to Manshiet Nasser. “People are not only poor but also uneducated.”

Poverty alone does not cause revolutions. Many other countries are poorer and more socially stratified than Egypt. People of a broad swath of social classes participated in the uprising that toppled the Mubarak regime. Their grievances with the autocratic regime were many, including corruption, a lack of freedom of expression and an often terrifying police state. But a widening gap between rich and poor, eroding infrastructure and government neglect of the shantytowns were also part of the long, complex backstory of the popular uprising that toppled Mubarak.

Who were the demonstrators, young and old, hurling stones at riot police? Some of them were college-educated, tech-savvy activists who tweeted every tear-gas volley to the world. But many of them are were also street vendors, garbage collectors, militant soccer fans or bus drivers like Ramadan Khalaf Amin. Many of them are migrants from the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt (where poverty rates are even higher than in Cairo) living in buildings with electricity siphoned from the municipal grid. One of the slogans most frequently chanted during the revolt was, “Bread, freedom, social justice!”

Among those people are the 16 million inhabitants of the slums referred to as ashwayyat, which means haphazard “informal neighborhoods,” as experts politely call them. The scale of these neighborhoods becomes clear from a hilltop in Manshiet Nasser. There, a visitor can see all of Cairo sprawling below: on a nearby hilltop, the medieval Citadel with its dome and two minarets; along the Nile, modern tower blocks; and in the haze on the far horizon, the triangular silhouettes of the pyramids at Giza.

(MORE: Morsi’s Next Move: Egypt’s President Got His Constitution, but Can He Fix the Economy?)

In the valley below lies a vast warren of hand-built houses, some no more than one-room shacks. The hillside sloping down from the road is blanketed in garbage. A dead horse lies partially submerged in the detritus. Skinny dogs nose through the piles looking for scraps.

The slums ballooned in size under Mubarak as a result of population growth, a lack of affordable housing, a growing disparity between rich and poor and the reversal of land reforms, which compelled many in rural Egypt to move to Cairo. Today the teetering economy has left many observers darkly predicting that the residents of the slums will revolt. Sameh El Alaily, an urban-rehabilitation professor at Cairo University, says he hears people “talking about a revolution of the hungry.” Sipping a cappuccino among the fountains and elevator music at the Meridien hotel in the suburban Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis, he says that such fears are based in economic realities. “There is an end to the story,” he says. “Because if you don’t find something to eat, what do you expect?”

Egypt’s government, led by President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist allies, is pursuing what is widely perceived as the only policy option that can avert an even more chaotic economic slide: a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The need for an immediate fix has been underscored in recent weeks by the rapid decline of the Egyptian pound, which on Monday hit another record low of 6.58 to the U.S. dollar, down from 6.1 in November.

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