Egypt feels the cost of protest

A report released Friday estimates that Egypt is losing $310 million daily from the protests. On Cairo streets, concerns range from tomato prices to the future of tourism and jobs.

By , Correspondent

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    Shop owners in Cairo opened their doors for the first time in days Saturday, but unemployment and rising prices are taking their toll.
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While hundreds of thousands of people have been demonstrating against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, millions more have stayed home, struggled to find cash as ATMs went dry, and been unable to work.

The financial toll of Egypt's popular uprising, already significant, is only likely to grow. In a report released Friday, the investment bank Credit Agricole estimated that the protests are costing Egypt $310 million a day. Finance Minister Samir Radwan called the economic situation "very serious."

For now, the crisis is making life more difficult for ordinary citizens in a nation that was already beset by high unemployment and rising food prices.

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Exclusive Monitor photos of Egypt's turmoil

Ramadan Mohamed, a vegetable seller in Cairo's Saad Zaghloul neighborhood, says business has been light as people have holed up in their homes to stay away from trouble. The curfew – in a city where streets are normally bustling at night – has shortened business hours. Tomatoes, 2 Egyptian pounds a week before the protests began, now cost 4.

"I went a week without working because I had to stay home and defend my home against the looters," he says. "Now people are sitting in their apartments; they're not going out. The vegetables come, but the people don't. It's difficult."

Yet small shops like Mr. Mohamed's may be among the least-affected sectors. Tourism, a pillar of Egypt's economy, has been decimated. One million tourists crowded onto flights out in the first nine days after the protests began, Egypt's new vice president said this week.

At Cairo's airport, inbound flights are almost empty, while outbound planes are packed with foreign tourists and, to a lesser extent, members of the business elite who have prospered under the Mubarak regime.

More than 10 percent of Egypt's jobs are generated by the tourism industry, which brought in more than $11 billion in foreign earnings last year. Now, at the tail end of the tourist season, the pyramids at Giza are deserted and hotels are empty.

"I'm with our people – of course I want change – but we also have to live," says Aida Suweil, who works at a Cairo company that provides transport for tourists. "If this continues, a lot of us are going to be out of work."

Tourism here has proved resilient over the years – Egypt's tourism sector has repeatedly recovered and gained strength after terrorist attacks. But the decision to unleash paid thugs on democracy protesters this week is likely to reverberate for some time in the minds of Europeans or Americans considering where to take a family holiday.

Lahcen Achy, an economist at the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center, says tourism in Egypt won't recover for at least the next six months.

Egypt is running a record budget deficit in the current fiscal year that's expected to top $19 billion. Tax receipts are falling as the need for food and other subsidies has grown, and Egypt's ability to borrow abroad, as well as its potential foreign investment, have been damaged by the unrest. The single decision to cut Internet access across the country for five days probably cost the country $90 billion, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Egypt's debt rating has been cut by the major rating agencies, and the country's borrowing costs have risen by about one percentage point, to about 6.8 percent. Constraints on borrowing abroad to plug the budget deficit could put pressure on the central bank to print money – something that would drive up already high inflation and prove devastating to the roughly 40 percent of Egyptians who live on $2 a day or less. The stock market dropped by 20 percent before it was closed, and the long closure of banks meant Egyptians living abroad couldn't send remittances home, says Mr. Achy.

Banks are expected to begin reopening on Sunday.

The economic numbers come to life in the rows of shops that remained shuttered 10 days after protests began, the broken windows and destruction of others that were looted, and the "out of order" signs on ATMs.

"These effects will translate into lack of job opportunities; some people have lost their assets, some people have lost their shops, their cars, so these people will be in a poor position," says Achy. At this point, it's hard to tell exactly how deep the damage will be. "We need first to wait for the bottom to be hit, because we still can't see the end," he says.

Yet for some Egyptians, the hope of a bright future outweighs the current economic woes.

"Life is difficult right now," says Jihad Ghani, a young woman who wore a canary-yellow head scarf to protest against Mr. Mubarak. "But it was getting worse and worse under Mubarak. Unemployment was going up, prices were going up, while salaries did not go up – life was getting harder. I think when we overcome these difficulties, life will be better with freedom."

Exclusive Monitor photos of Egypt's turmoil

Staff writer Dan Murphy contributed to this report.

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