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EGYPT: The Sound and the Fury of the Poor

6 minute read

Egypt’s peasants and hard-pressed middle class—who together make up 90% of an exploding population of 40 million—had for months grown increasingly bitter over continuing “sacrifice” demanded by their government. They chafed under commodity shortages and inflation rising at the rate of 37% a year. Those who shopped in private food stores—where lines were shorter but prices four times higher than in subsidized government stores—complained of constant increases in the cost of milk, meat and vegetables. While they suffered, the nation’s remaining 10% prospered. The rich grew richer under President Anwar Sadat, who returned property sequestered by the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser and made private investment easier in a vain attempt to persuade upper-class Egyptians to put their money into productive enterprises rather than real estate, which provides better returns.

Sudden Tornado. Last week the festering resentment finally broke into a shrill serenade of street violence that escalated to the worst riots Egypt has witnessed since King Farouk was dethroned 25 years ago. The trigger: an announcement by Deputy Premier for Economics Abdel Moneim Kaissouni of sharp cutbacks in food subsidies. That, in turn, meant price increases in government stores of as much as 50% for a loaf of bread, while the cost of sugar leaped 25%, tea 35% and bottled gas, which Egyptians use for cooking and heating, 50%. In a country where the average wage is only $26 a month, the news was disastrous.

The furious poor of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and a string of smaller towns, hearing Kaissouni’s announcement, poured into the streets in a 48-hour rampage. “Dismayed and distraught,” Sadat hurried back to the capital from his winter home at Aswan and ordered troops to back up his besieged riot police. For one of the few times in his six-year administration, Sadat was apparently stunned and frightened by the violence of the Egyptian masses. On the drive from a helicopter pad to his office, his swift-moving convoy was guarded by three select commando battalions and two armored units from the Egyptian army. Cairo’s streets were swept clean for the move, a rare decision for a President who up to now has ecstatically been hailed among his people.

In downtown Cairo, students and workers jammed the squares, setting fire to police stations, buses and trucks and attacking government buildings. The air over Cairo was thick with black smoke from the fires. Shepheard’s Hotel, the government-run successor to the old Shepheard’s of the imperial past, was stoned. Nightclubs frequented by rich foreign Arabs were burned out.

The demonstrations swept the city like a sudden tornado. TIME Correspondent Marcia Gauger, on leave to teach journalism at the American University in Cairo, was about to conduct a seminar when students from Ain Shams University marched past her classroom windows on their way to the People’s Assembly Building in Cairo. “There was no question of their temper,” Gauger reported. “They were spoiling for a fight; they were angry.”

Gauger followed the marchers to nearby Tahrir Square, the vast downtown center of Cairo near the Nile Hilton and the Egyptian Museum. “From other roads,” she reported, “appeared still more demonstrators, converging on the People’s Assembly. Now the protesters were no longer chanting slogans; instead, there came defiant cries from the mobs, the sharp crackle of breaking glass and finally the bark of tear-gas guns and rifle fire.” Before Gauger got safely home that night, Cairo’s flying squads of riot police with their Plexiglas face masks, shields and staves were in control. The last of the rioters were fleeing, holding their battered heads. In a city noted for round-the-clock noise, reported Gauger, “the silence was eerie.”

The official casualty toll was 47 dead and 630 injured, and over 600 were arrested, but a true count was assumed to be higher. Curfews were imposed, and Egypt’s 6 million students were sent on hasty midwinter vacations. At length, a desperate Premier Mamdouh Salem suspended the price increases that provoked the riots.

The unrest upset the battered Egyptian economy—the root of the trouble —even more. While other Arab nations prosper on oil, Egypt is too poor—and too overpopulated—to help itself. Foreign investment has been frightened off by uncertainty or, as in the case of a proposed $150 million Ford Motors plant, wiped out by the Arab boycott. Agriculture is so feeble that Egypt must import two-thirds of its food at a cost of $1.5 billion a year. Government foreign currency reserves are dwindling as world food prices rise, while the standing army of 850,000 men consumes a third of the nation’s $10 billion budget.

To help pay his bills, Sadat has requested loans and aid from foreign governments. Arab oil states were prepared to advance $2 billion, and the U.S. $1 billion. In return, the contributors and the International Monetary Fund had insisted that Egypt devalue its pound and cut subsidies to conserve funds for capital investment. Premier Salem had responded that such drastic cuts would provoke violent reactions. He turned out to be right.

Brotherly Pleas. Salem claimed that Communists were responsible for the riots, but that seemed only partly right. More probably, many instigators came from the archconservative Moslem Brotherhood, which has long opposed Sadat’s moderate regime.

In any case, the affair produced some unconcealed jubilation in Israel. Gloated the independent Tel Aviv daily Yediot Aharonot: “Sadat certainly learned that while he is engaged in world politics, his own house is about to fall in on him. One cannot foster imperial greatness while going bankrupt at home.” That was a shortsighted view indeed; if Sadat had fallen, the chances were strong that his successor might be more inclined toward a renewed confrontation with Israel.

By week’s end the rioting had cooled down; as it did, Sadat still seemed fairly secure. But for how long? Egypt last week sent out renewed pleas for more money from its Arab brothers; Sadat insists that over the next five years he would require a minimum of $5 billion. But the money would not necessarily guarantee his future. The turmoil was only a dramatic flash point that illuminated Egypt’s profound social and economic traumas. “The politicians overruled the economists in suspending the increases,” said a Western political observer in Cairo, “and now they’re looking for a scapegoat.”

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