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EGYPT: Before uprising against Mubarak, decades of poverty and resignation

January 28, 2011 |  3:59 pm


In Cairo, Egypt's capital, attention now is on the tanks in the streets. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warns of "chaos" while opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei says, "It's now the people versus the thugs." But quieter dramas played in the country of 73 million before the present wave of protests, and several were chronicled by Jeffrey Fleishman, The Times' Cairo Bureau chief.

■ In Cairo, a fractured family lives in separate huts atop a roof. Alia Qotb was born in the basement of this building in 1939. The husband she's married three times and divorced twice lives here with her, as do three of Qotb's seven children. They're not the only roof dwellers in the vicinity; next-door, Samia Mekkawy peers over, whispering, "I look down and pity her. She has it worse."

■ In a village on the Nile Delta, two parents mourn the death of their 32-year-old son, Samir Asar, who hanged himself. Asar's wife and their five children have returned to her family in a neighboring village.

"The notice of his suicide appeared in a newspaper, the same day the suicides of two other delta men were reported. One was a 32-year-old handyman with five children who earned $72 a month. He jumped from a building. The other was a 31-year-old who hanged himself after his fiancee's family threatened to call off their marriage if he couldn't afford a new flat. He was found lying next to a toppled chair and a frayed rope.

Suicide is on the rise in Egypt, where about 45% of the population lives on $2 a day or less. Gamal Zahran, a member of parliament, has blamed the government for unemployment and poverty that he says have caused thousands of Egyptians to kill themselves."

■ A peddler roams the streets of Cairo with stacks of newspapers that answer some questions and leave others in mystery: "Why does rice cost so much? Who knows? Can a politically connected businessman get away with murder? Quite possibly."

Before the Internet, Mohamed knew about the news of the world — wars, intrigue, the broken loves of movie stars — ahead of just about anyone. It was a privilege, but such things don't last and what was once special turns into something else. His customers, though, still love the warm feel of paper in their hands, how it crinkles and can be rolled to swat flies or bat away crazy opinions of cranky old men in cafes.

But truth be told, pleasant as he is, Mohamed delivers doom.

"People are depressed," he says. "They don't want to read the news because it makes them more depressed. Political. Financial. The news never seems to get better. The baker and the tea shop guy don't want me to come by anymore. They said they're tired of reading about things that never change."

■ A waiter's survivors wonder what will come of the inquiry into his death; he appears to have been fatally beaten by police. They've been waiting a while: "There is no hurry to solve the case; the prosecutor has yet to even interrogate the officers."

■ The crowds on the Qasr el Nil Bridge at night are thick with youthful romances and diversions -- and shadowed by weariness:

"The future is murky," says Gamal, relaxed yet perturbed in a single breath. "God willing, we'll go to university, but will we find work when we finish? A lot of my friends don't have jobs. The government does nothing. It tries to distract the youth, but won't help them."

"The young won't bring about change," Gamal says. "They're too depressed."

— Michael Owen

Photo: Alia Qotb and husband Ahmed Gaballah have spent decades living atop a building in Cairo. Credit: Asmaa Waguih / For The Times