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Sun, Sep 28, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Egyptian middle class feeling the price/wage pinch

The devaluation of the Egyptian pound has left consumers with no other choice than to buy less expensive imports from China


Squeezed by deepening unemployment and rising prices, Egyptians are struggling to make ends meet with loans from relatives, menial jobs and cheap Chinese goods, but some fear street rioting if things worsen.

Take the case of Mona, a 41-year-old mother of three young children whose husband lost his job this year as an engineer in a telecommunications firm that went bankrupt.

Mona is earning 0.1 Egyptian pounds (US$.015) per word as an Arabic-English translator in a bilingual fashion magazine that tempts her with clothing and accessories she could never afford.

"This year, sending the children back to school was a nightmare, with rising prices and dwindling income," Mona said. "Looking at the prices, I realized I was slipping from middle to a lower class.

"Thanks to Chinese products, I bought immitation Barbie school bags, as flashy as the original, but for E?58 instead of 300 pounds, while I bought children's imitation Nike and Adidas sneakers for 45 pounds," Mona said.

The real shoes would cost E?400 here.

A dollar buys E?6.15 in the banks, but E?7.20 on the black market. Before the authorities removed the peg to the dollar in January, the greenback bought E?4.51 at the official rate, and E?5.30 on the black market.

The devaluation of the Egyptian pound has increased the cost of imports and sparked a rise in the cost of living between 10 percent and 20 percent, according to bankers.

"Long live China," shouted Maged Tawfiq while showing off black shoes he bought for E?25.

"Without the Chinese, I would go barefoot, as vinyl Egyptian shoes cost at least double," said Tawfiq, who is a medical X-ray technician.

Tawfiq, the 32-year-old father of a seven year-old girl, works 14 hours a day to earn E?800 a month, doing his regular job in the morning and working as a delivery man for a pharmacy.

His wife Zeinab abandoned hope of having a second child after she lost her job in a private company this year.

"Prices skyrocketed, with a kilogram of beef costing a minimum of E?15," she said.

Though government-subsidized bread is now available following a shortage of several weeks, each loaf is smaller and of poorer quality, she said.

"Free school is a myth because underpaid teachers harass students to give them private lessons," she said.

The World Bank announced this month that poverty in Egypt may have surpassed the 17 percent mark registered in 2000.

The poverty threshold in Egypt is set at E?315 per month (around US$50 at the official rate) for a family of six, according to official figures.

Egyptian banks, which have been under fire recently for granting millions of dollars in loans without guarantee, now demand a slew of documents to make the smallest loans.

Egyptians are now falling back on family and friends to borrow money or relying on the so-called gam'ia, cooperative, system.

For example, a group of 10 friends each regularly pay E?50 into a fund to raise E?500 for whoever needs the money first, said Salma Mokbel, a 28-year-old employee in a state-run textile factory.

Hussein Hamdi, her colleague who has three children, said she asked her mother to lend her money for the return to school, "but she already gave her whole pension to my two sisters."

"Don't ask how we survive or why we don't rebel," Hussein said.

"The government is betting on the political apathy of Egyptians long used to dictatorship. It should be wary because hunger knots the stomach but lets loose rebellion," Hussein warned.

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