Egypt's economy still under pressure

By Rob Young
Business reporter, BBC World Service, Cairo

Image caption,
One man's protest is another's business opportunity in Egypt

On the surface, there is a sense of economic normality in Cairo, a week on from the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

But beneath the surface, there are many problems.

The streets are again clogged with cars, honking their horns.

But journeys take slightly longer than before, because drivers have to manoeuvre around tanks and armoured personnel carriers parked on the roads.

Shops are open again and street sellers are back in business.

In residential parts of Cairo, men have taken up their familiar plots, selling potatoes heaped in piles at the roadside.

Donkeys pulling rickety-looking carts, laden with bright green watermelons and juicy oranges to sell at markets, are also visible again.

But some people have decided not to work - they seem to have got the hang of protesting.

Textile workers, civil servants, and even farmers have been protesting, demanding pay rises, better working conditions or the removal of their managers.

"The Agricultural Bank is dry!" was the cry from hundreds of angry people outside the Ministry of Agriculture.

They were waving banners and chanting, watched by a truck full of soldiers.

The presence of foreign journalists made the crowd even angrier.

Deficit dilemma

The army has been sending text messages to all Egyptian mobile phones, asking people to go back to work.

So far, the calls have been ignored and the protests seem to have become more widespread.

The government has promised civil servants a 15% pay rise.

But the state's budget deficit is predicted to rise this year as it spends more than it raises in taxes, so questions are being asked about the sustainability of such pay rises.

However, protesters are hopeful.

Image caption,
The army is trying to persuade people to return to work

"Any government that is in control of this country and its resources should be able to provide for rises in wages," insists Nader Fergany, a pro-democracy economist.

The important tourism sector has been hit hard as foreign tourists have stayed away.

The sector accounts for about 10% of Egypt's economic output.

The company Tour Egypt says its business levels have plummeted over the past month.

"We've probably had losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Ahmed Elemam, the chief executive of the firm.

"We've tried to keep on our staff," he says, but for many, that means a month without pay.

He predicts the sector will see no recovery in bookings from abroad until September.

The army told Egypt's banks to close this week because of the workers' protests.

Image caption,
Tourism chiefs are concerned about the slump in business

That has meant many firms have been unable to buy stock or sell their goods.

There are reports from some areas of cash machines running out of money. That is bad news for shops.

Egypt's poor have been suffering the most economically, hit disproportionately hard by rising food prices.

They have the most gain from a new government, if protesters' demands to close the wealth gap are met.

Jobless woes

In the run-down district of Shabramant, the bakery is closed.

People who live in the area say it has increased its prices, but the shop still cannot meet the demand for bread.

A group of a few dozen are waiting outside the shuttered shop, hoping it will open again.

Across the street from them is a mound of stinking, rotting rubbish.

Unemployed Mohammed Fathy is one of 11 people living in a four-room apartment in Shabramant.

He has been out of work for two years and life is tough for his family.

Image caption,
Dozens of young men are selling patriotic items

"How can you eat, how can you get enough food, how can you get your child to school? If someone is sick, how can you go to hospital?" he asks.

"No job, no money, nothing."

He could not afford the $3 consultation fee to take his ill daughter to see the doctor.

It is estimated well over 10 million Egyptians live on less than $1 a day.

It is this poverty, together with hunger and a lack of jobs, that led Egyptians to the streets.

But one man's protest is another man's business opportunity and some of Egypt's young entrepreneurs have seen a gap in the market.

In Tahrir Square, there are dozens of young men selling Egyptian flags and painting faces in the national colours - red, white and black.

The price of flags has gone up as families buy more and more.

"The price of flags has doubled," grumbled one man as he handed over a fistful of Egyptian pounds.

It seems there is still money to spend celebrating the revolution.