Jubilant Cairo Now Faces Economic Devastation

Jubilant Cairo Now Faces Economic Devastation

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CAIRO--It is Saturday 7:30 p.m., in Khan al-Khalili, the giant bazaar in the heart of Cairo’s traditional Islamic quarters, and Mohamed Ahmed has not managed to sell even one of the souvenirs he has carefully arranged on his shop’s shelves.

Ahmed, 35 and the father of three, keeps cleaning the glittering silver trays, handmade rugs, pottery and fabrics to make them more appealing to the few tourists and other visitors who still come to the market. But these days, the ancient alleyways are near empty of anyone but other shopkeepers.

“This is the toughest time in my 22-year career,” Ahmed told New America Media. “This shop has never been deserted like this.”

As tens of millions of politicized Egyptians celebrate their ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the end of three decades of dictatorship, millions of others slide into financial ruin or count the losses that the 18-day uprising has caused them.

The massive demonstrations that erupted on January 25—which also marked National Police Day--aimed to overthrow a corrupt regime and herald an era of political reform.

“Freedom” and “dignity” were rallying cries for throngs of protestors. But few of the revolutionaries could have imagined that their revolt would cause severe economic suffering to millions of their compatriots.

As the protests spread from central Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square to other cities across the nation, travel agencies cancelled their Egypt packages, and the tourists already here packed their bags and headed home.

More than 1 million foreign tourists left Egypt in the first nine days of the protests, according to Vice President Omar Suleiman. The Egyptian stock exchange also lost about 70 billion Egyptian pounds ($11.8 billion in U.S. dollars) the first three days of the protests, leading to its closure.

“Revolutions are always about victims, but never has there been a revolution with such a big number of victims,” said Maged Aly, a leading Egyptian economic analyst. “True, the anti-Mubarak demonstrations led to significant political gains, but the economic damage caused by the demonstrations can eclipse everything else if taken into consideration.”

As the demonstrations continued, Aly watched the financial resources of most Egyptians dry up, and the economy freefall into recession. Imports and exports came to a standstill, Aly said, while investors looked for more stable markets.

With a nationwide curfew from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m., middle-class Egyptians cleaned out groceries and stored food and other staples in case of greater turbulence. But others were not able to buy even their most basic needs.

One was Mahmud Mohamed, a cab driver in his early 40s. A month ago, he drove his white Chevrolet from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., earning between 100 and 120 Egyptian pounds (about US$16-$20) daily, enough money to feed his two children and save for future needs. Now, he earns as little as one-fourth of that amount per day.

“This is catastrophic,” Mohamed said. “What benefit has the revolution brought me?”

Mohamed does not hide his elation at the ability of the revolutionaries to oust Mubarak, but Egyptian experts worry that the revolt’s economic impact has not yet fully hit, and they wonder how the nation will recover. They say problems in the construction industry, in particular, can cause greater crises, simply because it drives more than 70 other economic activities in this country.

“Millions of Egyptians work in the construction sector either directly or indirectly,” Aly said. “Most of these people have lost their jobs already.”

Tourism, though, has sustained the most damage. More than 2.5 million people work in tourism-related industries, including 80 percent who work on a seasonal basis. Most of these workers have lost their jobs as the nation’s hotels have emptied and tours have been canceled.

In the Khan al-Khalili, the aging al-Hussein Hotel used to stand at the receiving end of guided tours, welcoming thousands of tourists who wanted to experience the exquisite charm of medieval Islamic Cairo.

Today, only a few of the hotel employees have managed to hold on to their jobs. They stayed, not to serve guests--because there are not any--but to protect the hotel furniture from looters.

“February is usually the highest point in the tourist season,” said Khalid Hassan, the hotel manager. “All the rooms are empty, and it is all because of the demonstrations.”

Meters away, Mohamed Ahmed, the souvenir seller, stood outside his shop with three other shopkeepers and remembered the better days. He said he used to earn 50 Egyptian pounds (US$8.5) every day.

“Now, I earn almost nothing,” Ahmed said. “We can do nothing, but hope that tomorrow things will get better.”