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EGYPT: The poor struggle at the edge of revolution

February 10, 2011 |  5:31 pm

 Clare's picAs  anti-government  protesters  in Tahrir Square erupted into rage Thursday night after President Hosni Mubarak refused to step down, many Egyptians sank further into distress.  While the fortunate may have emerged unscathed with homes and bank accounts intact, many more will have suffered as these last 17 days unfolded with loss of wages, sales and tips or baksheesh.

Wrapped in the green and orange worn by sanitation workers across Cairo, the elderly woman with bloated ankles can be found most days sitting on the curb, her broom by her side.  She makes 50 Egyptian pounds or about $8 a day and usually relies on strangers for more. Whether the revolution will bring her a cozy retirement is doubtful.

Nearby, a young boy, beautiful in face and spirit, hauls trash bags fifty times bigger than the school backpack he should be carrying. His pay keeps  his family in baladi bread.  Measly wages are not the only  trigger prompting demonstrations against  Egypt’s ruling class. But it is a unifying one.  Indeed, countless labor unions are remonstrating loudly across Egypt.  Telecom Egypt workers say they make 600 Egyptian pounds a month, a wage they say that hasn’t changed in 20 years.  Postal workers, factory workers and even professionals such as doctors and teachers report similar pay. Many Egyptians rely on tips or as in the case for teachers, private tutoring sessions, or for doctors, private patients, for their real compensation.

The policemen who fled their posts last week also earn dismal salaries:  Conscripts at the bottom take home less than 100 Egyptian dollars a month, some in management can earn tens of thousands a month.   It is a system that has fostered corruption and cronyism for several decades.  In attempts to assuage protesters last week, the government raised wages of government employees by 15%, to take effect in April. Considering the average wage, that boost will barely buy an extra 2 pounds of of beef ($12) each month. A good gauge of economic progress in Egypt will be when beggars no longer earn more than workers.

In spite of severe economic hardships, Cairenes are trying to slip back into their usual genial society. Crowds once again swell the streets, cafes are abuzz, restaurants  welcome diners and taxi drivers honk their services, hungry for any fare.

In this city of 20 million, kindness is anything but random during this troubled time. A policeman sits near my neighborhood’s edge, sewing the beginnings of a suit jacket in one hand and nursing tea with the other. He smiles a big hello and offers a glass.  Strangers whisper  "Ezzayik" to ask if everything is OK.  Nearby at a busy intersection, free packed lunches of chips and baguettes are handed through taxi windows.  "We just wanted to do something nice for them," said the  young volunteer.

— Clare Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: Protests in Tahrir Square Credit: Reuters

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