Poverty haunts Egypt in Cairo's city of the dead

A long way from Tahrir Square


In a sprawling cemetery on the edge of Cairo, where thousands of Egyptians inhabit the tombs of bygone nobles in a City of the Dead, the promise of a revolution is haunted by the specter of poverty.

The centuries-old maze of mausoleums is a long way from Tahrir Square and the Internet activists whose revolt chased Hosni Mubarak from power and united the country behind a vision of a resurrected Egypt, proud and free.

"I didn't go to Tahrir," said Nasser al-Said, 27, who makes a couple of dollars a day by selling tea from a rickety wooden table by the roadside.

"I have to support my mother, my wife and my daughter. How are they supposed to eat if I go off and demonstrate?"

Poverty and unemployment

They squat in a tomb in the City of the Dead, a necropolis dating back to the seventh-century Islamic conquest, where the intricately patterned domes of mediaeval mosques rise above meandering dirt lanes lined with mausoleums.

Some have lived here for generations -- preferring to be close to deceased ancestors honored with monuments in a custom dating back to the time of the Pyramids -- but most are here because they cannot afford to live anywhere else.

Forty percent of Egyptians live on $2 (1.50 euros) a day or less, according to the World Bank, and unemployment is rife among the young, forcing many to put off marriage and children until well into their 30s.

Tariq Salah, 33, makes around $125 a month digging graves and guarding a 200-year-old mausoleum where he sleeps alone each night among the graves of Ottoman-era nobles.

"If you want to get married you have to have an apartment, you have to have everything. I can't save money because I only make enough to eat," he said.

The youth-led protests that brought down Mubarak and are now reverberating across the region were largely driven by such concerns, with chants of "The people want the fall of the regime!" punctuated by "I want to get married!"

Hopes of more democracy

Egyptians hope for a new, more democratic government that can help them prosper by rooting out corruption, with many citing reports -- unconfirmed and very probably exaggerated -- that Mubarak made off with $70 billion.

The technocrats of his sacked government, many of them now banned from travel and the subject of graft investigations, did much to open Egypt to foreign investment and presided over several years of economic growth.

But as trendy cafes and new shops sprouted across Cairo's more fashionable neighborhoods, most of the nation felt left behind.

"They may have had some good indicators in performance in GDP, growth rate and balance of payments," said Magdy Sobhi, an economist at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"But at the same time you had this discontent... They said all the time that the trickle down would come, but later on. But this 'later on' never came."

Or, as tomb-dweller Said Ali, 37, put it: "There are 99 poor people for every rich person here... There is no middle class."

Any new government that emerges in Cairo will face many of the constraints of the old one -- a growing population of more than 80 million, a lingering global economic crisis and, for now, the fallout from the uprising itself.

At the height of the revolt the economy was bleeding more than $300 million a day, according to the Egyptian unit of French bank Credit Agricole, which slashed its 2011 growth forecast from 5.3 to 3.7 percent.

The stock market has repeatedly postponed its reopening, citing "fears of instability," and a wave of strikes on Monday threatened to shut down the country before its new military rulers urged calm.

Egypt's vital tourism sector brought in $13 billion in 2010, with a record 15 million people visiting the Land of the Pharaohs.

But these days there are hardly any visitors at the domed citadel standing guard high above the tombs or the towering mediaeval mosques of the old city, which on Tuesday evening were shrouded by a brown, polluted haze.

On the highway that skirts the City of the Dead, a few young vendors holding bundles of Egyptian flags tried to wave down patriotic motorists, and the honking cars roared past them.