News » World

February 6: Egyptian regime offers concessions

Economy starts to return to normal as VP Omar Suleiman meets with opposition.


CAIRO, Egypt – Neither a light winter drizzle nor additional concessions by Egypt’s government could stop thousands of pro-reform demonstrators from demanding an end to the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak on the streets of Tahrir Square on Saturday, the twelfth straight day of protest.

Vice President Omar Suleiman met with a broad coalition of opposition groups on Sunday, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and young supporters of leading democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei.

Suleiman agreed to allow freedom of the press, to release detained protesters and to lift the country's hated emergency laws when security permits, the Associated Press reported.

The government on Saturday announced a reshuffling in the leadership of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, including the resignation of Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son who many here believed was being groomed as a successor to his father. Gamal’s departure means that he will be ineligible to run in September’s presidential election, according to elections laws.

When news of the NDP shake-up reached protesters in Tahrir Square late Saturday afternoon, the crowd erupted with a wave of triumphant cheers and chants.

Still, they defiantly continued to occupy Cairo’s city center — despite the start of a military-imposed curfew — reiterating their calls for Mubarak’s ouster.

Egypt’s military, which rolled onto the streets of Cairo soon after the unrest began, also failed to persuade protesters to stand down.

Tanks attempted to overrun the sheet-metal barricades set up by anti-government demonstrators as defensive lines in Tahrir, but a human shield of locked arms prevented the army’s advance.

A visiting general, who announced to protesters in Tahrir that "there are many people manipulating you," was largely ignored.

Political stability was not the only concern for the autocratic Mubarak government that has continually suppressed dissenting views since it came to power in 1981.

Egypt’s leadership is desperately seeking a return to calm and order to save an economy that has been largely crippled by the protests and the subsequent looting and vandalism that occurred when police forces withdrew from the city.

With banks and universities mostly closed, and storefronts and businesses shuttered, analysts worry about the economy of this once bustling capital city of over 20 million residents, which has been at a virtual standstill since late January.

“Things may go back to normal gradually. But it certainly won’t happen overnight,” said Sherif el Kholy, a private equity investor in Cairo. “This coming week is the first time going back to work back for many in Egypt, and it will be interesting to see how businesses return.”

As Egyptians prepared for the start of their first full workweek in nearly two weeks, there were already signs that life was beginning to return to normal in Cairo.

Several military checkpoints were loosened, allowing motorcycles, trucks, and the ubiquitous black and white jalopies-cum-taxis to pour back out onto the once-crowded streets.

Cairo’s curfew, which has prevented consumers from getting to the markets, was eased slightly. Fruit and vegetable peddlers returned to their street corners, while some kabab restaurants fired up their grills.

The overall damage to Egypt’s economy is still uncertain.

Egypt’s newly sworn-in minister of finance, Samir Radwan, told the Reuters news agency that losses due to the unrest were going to be “huge" but that it was “too early to put the loss in terms of pounds and pennies."

Some estimates, however, indicated losses of a staggering $310 million per day. The analysis by Credit Agricole bank was just one of many reasons investors remained wary of the Egyptian markets. Egypt’s stock market saw heavy losses of over $12 billion dollars during trading in first two days of protests in late January. The markets were promptly closed, and have not been open since.

With shaky investors, plans to reopen the Egyptian stock exchange are still delayed indefinitely. But for the thousands protesting for democracy and reform in Tahrir Square, investor confidence was the furthest thing from their minds.

“Freedom is our first step, not the economy,” said Ibrahim Sheikh, 43, who had been demonstrating for days in Tahrir. “After we fix that, everything will come back.”

For an economy that has been stagnating for years, though, things could be worse.

Unlike Tunisia, which witnessed similar political unrest in January, Egypt did not experience widespread fuel and food shortages.

Most economists in Egypt said that receipts for Egypt’s heavily trafficked and strategic Suez Canal were not significantly affected.

The biggest worry for the country, said economists, is the tourism sector, Egypt’s bread and butter. The sandy beaches, colorful coral, and ancient monuments generate more than $10 billion dollars of revenue for Egypt each year. But with the increasing unrest, nearly 1 million tourists have fled the country.

The Pyramids of Giza are still closed, and protests have cost Egypt's tourism sector at least $1 billion, according to government officials. Rebuilding the confidence of tourists starts with ending the recent harassment of journalists, said Amira Ahmed, business editor of the Cairo-based Daily News.

This week, over a dozen foreign and local journalists were harassed, beaten, and detained by state security following several segments by Egyptian state television implying that foreign spies were responsible for the turmoil.

“Random arrests and harassment of journalists will definitely create a panic among tourists,” said Ahmed. “It’s going to take a concerted effort by the state media, which has been feeding the rumor mill about journalists in Egypt.”

The country's newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, also said that “foreign agendas infiltrated the protests with the aim of causing as much chaos and sedition as possible” in a televised speech.

Many protesters in Tahrir believe that Egypt’s government, desperately seeking to end the country’s unrest, will attempt reopen the square to traffic.

And for many, protesting is a luxury they simply won’t be able to afford in the long run.

“I do know a lot of people that are holding strong, and won’t leave this week,” said a 22-year-old anti-government protester who only identified herself as Amira. “But I’ll probably have to leave to go back to work. I’m not saying this isn’t worth it, but I don’t want to lose my job either.”