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Struggling to Keep Hope Alive in Cairo’s City of the Dead

Sarah Lazare reports from Cairo’s City of the Dead, an ancient cemetery inhabited by people too poor to pay rent.

(Photo: Jihad Abaza)

Thirty-six-year-old Hamdy Mohammed Bassuny lifted up an X-ray slide to show us the birdshot that is lodged permanently in his hand because he cannot afford the hospital bill to get it removed. This wound, which he sustained in early February protests staged in front of the Presidential Palace, during which a video captured over eight police beating and dragging a Cairo protester naked through the street, is just one of his injuries. He was also shot in the stomach, near his liver, as well as in his leg during that one incident.

We are sitting in his living room, a blue-painted tomb in Egypt’s City of the Dead, where Cairo’s poor have transformed this ancient cemetery, dating back to 642 AD, into a living, breathing community of people too poor to afford rent prices as wages tank and jobs dry up across Cairo. Its dusty streets are silent, offering a contrast to Cairo’s usual clamor, as no cars can enter its narrow passageways. There is no official count of how many people live here, but estimates exceed half a million, with the population continuing to climb.

Bassuny’s family gathers around him as he points to his hand, which he is no longer able to use, disqualifying him from the painting and carpentry jobs on which he once depended. “Now I just sit around all day,” he explains. “There is only work when someone needs to be buried.”

Bassuny and his family count themselves among the many whose lives have been deeply affected by the revolution. But Bassuny belongs to Egypt’s underclass, the subsistence poor who inhabit this city’s vast informal dwellings, beyond the spotlight of the media, whose voices are often excluded from the story of revolutionary Egypt. The wounds he bears from the streets are compounded by the poverty conditions that ruled his life before the revolution and remain firmly intact as President Mohamed Morsi’s regime agrees to court the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in response to US pressure.

Nearly a third of Egypt lives below the poverty line, and according to official figures, nearly 3.5 million are unemployed – likely a drastic undercount given that this does not include Egypt’s vast informal economy, estimated to comprise between 25 and 60 percent of the total economy.

These brutal realities are built on decades of neoliberal reforms, part of Egypt’s evolving close relationship with the United States. After the fall of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime, his successor Anwar Sadat introduced Egypt’s “open door” policy of 1974 and rolled back many of Nasser’s policies, eroded regulations and forced Egypt into the global marketplace. Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel concretized its role as a key strategic ally to the United States, prompting over $60 billion in military, economic and governmental aid from its superpower partner, which came with a torrent of directives to implement neoliberal economic reforms.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Egypt received money from the US-dominated IMF and World Bank on the condition that the government implement structural adjustment programs aimed at deregulating the economy and eroding social safety nets, part of a larger pattern in which neoliberalism was used as a global tactic to continue US-led resource extraction and indirect political control over Third World countries that had thrown off direct colonial rule. Mubarak continued these policies: privatizing public companies; transforming agriculture into export dependency and devastating local farmers; privatizing health care and education, and eroding wages for workers in these fields.

Today, Egypt is a key ally in the US-led war on terror and receives $1.3 billion a year in military aid alone. In his recent visit to meet with the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the opposition, Secretary of State John Kerry levered the promise of $250 million in aid up front, and an additional billion upon signing, to pressure Egypt to enter into a $4.8 billion deal with the IMF. Kerry’s visit, which came at a time of deadly police and Army crackdowns on anti-government protesters, was decried as an endorsement of Muslim Brotherhood rule. Critics also charge that the IMF loan will only continue to widen the gulf between Egypt’s rich and poor.

“The money that the US gives us – we are not the ones who benefit,” Bassuny explains with a laugh. “You can talk about giving aid to Egypt, but this money does not come to people like us.”

Analysts say that the IMF, which provides loans in exchange for a top-down, IMF-run reworking of national economies, is likely to call for a cut in energy subsidies, as well as in the bread subsidies for Egypt’s poor, upon which Bassuny and his loved ones depend. For this family of ten – all of whom live inside of the tomb – these subsidies are crucial to their ability to simply survive the day.

Bassuny’s stepmother Fatheya, who sits in the corner with a mallet pounding small decorative pieces for hanging curtains, says the quantity of bread given to the poor has already decreased. She has lived in the City of the Dead for 40 years, having raised children and grandchildren there, and says it is now harder to get by.

Due to a leg injury she cannot afford to treat, her only way of providing for the family is to sell these curtain pieces at half a pound for each kilogram produced. “I can’t afford the treatment I need to be able to work,” she laments. Fatheya explains that the entire family depends on her husband’s pension of 200 Egyptian Pounds a month, which is barely enough to survive on. Her 14-year-old granddaughter Nada explains that she would like to go to school, but her family cannot afford the registration fee.

Since the beginning of the revolution, the whole family has been glued to the television set, watching every political development and arguing vociferously about the course forward. “We are not educated, but since the revolution began, we have tried to learn as much as possible,” explains Bassuny. “We are engaged.”

Bassuny decided to take to the streets when he watched on TV in late January 2013 as a funeral for protesters killed in clashes was fired on in the Suez Canal city of Port Said. “I was watching the TV and crying,” he says. “My family tried to stop me from going, but I wanted to be with the people. These martyrs were not supposed to die. I do not like how Morsi is running the country.”

When Bassuny was shot multiple times, he had only ten pounds in his pocket. He had to pay his own cab fare to the hospital, and once he was there, he was told that he would need to pay 35 pounds to initiate treatment.

Unable to afford the costs, Bassuny was forced to return home with his injuries, where he slowly recovered and raised money to treat his hand from his community in the City of the Dead. While he has been able to scrape together the funds for the X-ray, he cannot afford the procedure to remove the birdshot for his hand, and he is not sure if the day will come when he can treat his wounds. His X-ray is now just a reminder of an injury he is unable to treat. “This is just one case of people who can’t afford care,” he explains.

The Egyptian revolution – whose rallying cry is “Bread, Dignity, Freedom” – includes demands to reverse plummeting wages, rising unemployment and soaring food prices devastating Egypt’s poor, in addition to calls for an end to the police violence and emergency law that has brought its greatest wrath on the backs of Egypt’s poor. Two years after the fall of Mubarak, protesters continue these demands in the streets, met with fierce clashes from the army and police. As strikes, civil disobedience, and clashes rage in Port Said, the city of Mahalla – with a long history of worker organizing in its many textile factories – declares itself an autonomous city.

Fatheya says that, at first, she was “excited about the revolution against the man who has been sucking our blood for 30 years.” However, as the security situation in the City of the Dead continues to erode and the daily struggle to get by grows more difficult, she is growing discouraged and has come to believe that an Army takeover of the government would be best for the country.

The Egyptian Army is a powerful force, running up to 40 percent of the economy in famously secretive and unaccountable holdings, including mineral water, tourism and potato chips. This economic holdover from Nasser-era state ownership of markets now rivals US economic support, whose aid and weapons donations have allowed the Army to grow its empire while blurring the line between for-profit and military ventures.

Decades of US-fueled growth have strengthened the Army as a political force and swelled Egypt’s security state in conjunction with the spread of neoliberalism. At a time of political uncertainty and economic insecurity, and while cracking down on continued protests, the Army advertises itself as the sole body strong enough to unify a fractured country – a message that speaks to some of Cairo’s dispossessed here in the City of the Dead.

Bassuny, who also supports Army takeover, insists that, regardless of who is in power, there will be another revolution if poverty conditions are not transformed. “The people here, for the most part, didn’t riot, and when they do, it will be big. They should expect another revolution from starvation,” he says.

“The conditions here are unbearable.”

Shimaa Helmy contributed to this report.

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