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Egypt’s economy has shut down. Is that helping Mubarak?

Cairo, Egypt—Egypt’s economy has by all accounts ground to a halt as a result of curfews, travel restrictions, and communications blackouts. Here in Cairo, the effects are readily apparent: Reduced delivery of goods and a shortage of wheat have shuttered subsidized bread-distribution points, reducing the quantity of bread available and generating long, angry breadlines snaking down the city’s alleyways. “I’ve been waiting here for two hours,” one man in a military-run breadline told me. “The bread today is smaller than what we used to get, but at least we still have bread.” Long lines have also developed in front of the few working cash machines, because most ATMs remain shut off, and I spied scores of civil servants taking turns trying to withdraw their salaries. The people waiting were sick of everything. “God break their houses,” called someone from the queue.

One might guess that this only inflames anger against Mubarak, much as Parisian bread shortages catalyzed the French Revolution. But the political impact could be more complicated. Many here believe that Mubarak is intentionally disrupting Egyptian life in order to fuel insecurity, as part of a clever ploy to convince people they need him to stay—yet among some Egyptians I spoke to, there were signs that this strategy may actually be working. “We’ve had to get our food only in the morning, before curfew,” an elderly Dr. Aliya Abdel Hamid told me, describing how foraging for food in a ghost town has worn on her family. Carrying bundles of vegetables and bread, she said that she was swayed by Mubarak’s promises. “Everything must stop and everyone should go home. Mubarak isn’t bad, his people are the bad ones and he removed them.” Others announced that the support they initially felt for the protesters is wearing thin.

Still others were not worn down. “The curfew means we can’t drive at night, and there is no fuel. Business is bad, but I want my rights,” said Moustafa Mahfouz, a taxi driver. “They [the protesters] should stay, stay, stay! He did nothing for us.” And today, even as thousands attended the violent, and possibly phony, pro-Mubarak protests in Cairo, the mass of anti-Mubarak demonstrators downtown appeared unmoved by their president’s vow not to run for reelection.

I did come across at least one place where business is booming: Yousri Said’s outdoor sporting goods shop. No one was buying the stacked fishing rods or snorkeling flippers, but sales of weaponry are way up. Said explained that the price of what looks like a handgun but only fires sound has gone up 30 percent to about $260, and the volume sold has skyrocketed too. “People are buying the guns to protect themselves—they scare off intruders,” he said as a steady stream of customers crowded the shop’s small interior. A few pockets of the Egyptian economy, it seems, are doing just fine.

Sarah A. Topol is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.

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