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After War, Egypt's Poor Get Poorer

Rising unemployment and tough austerity measures push children into economic front line

THE blind man moved with upraised hands through the slow-moving downtown traffic. Perhaps it was an innate instinct for survival which led the man shuffling past battered taxis without pause. Instead, he stopped at the window of a top-of-the-line Mercedes. He did not leave empty handed: The Kuwaiti couple inside passed out a few notes.

Gulf Arabs' high-profile

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The scene is repeated a thousand times each day in Cairo, the Arab world's most populous city. Petty sellers and beggars, often only small children, weave in and out of the round-the-clock traffic, offering up their cheap wares and pitiful infirmities to the charity of the rich.

Since the Gulf crisis, more than 30,000 well-heeled Kuwaitis have taken up temporary residency here. Along with thousands of other Gulf Arabs, their high-profile presence has thrown into sharp relief the growing gap between the oil-rich Gulf Arabs and their poorer, more populous neighbors.

The manicured refugees are a common sight in the lobbies of Cairo's five-star hotels and pricey shopping areas. The families are easily marked out by their overweight and overdressed children, Filipino nanny in tow.

There are more than 14 million people living in Cairo, the acute shortage of apartments forcing at least a tenth of these to live in cemeteries. The economy is stagnant and unemployment is estimated at more than 25 percent. At the same time, child labor appears to be on the increase as families struggle to keep up with the rising costs of everything from food to schools.

Though residents are loathe to speak openly of their troubles, there are growing indications that life for the average, poor Egyptian is becoming almost intolerable.

``We're living. Thanks be to God, we're living,'' says Hamdy, a middle-aged resident of Old Cairo, the densely-populated ancient quarter. ``There were more opportunities before. Twenty years ago there was money, there were chances.

``But now, you can't get a man who has six or seven kids and can afford to keep them. Some have to work,'' he says. ``The father must send them to work. He has to do this more and more.''

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As we spoke at a corner cafe, waif-like boys in worn pajamas and rubber shoes raced in and out of the busy intersection, leaping onto the tailgates of passing trucks. A broken sewer main had turned the crossing into a lake of fetid water.

From a few doors away came the din of a metalworking shop. One of the workers was an unkempt boy of no more than 12 years old. When asked about the boy's employ, the overseer became irritated and claimed he was his own 16-year-old son.

During the Gulf war, President Bush spoke of a ``new world order.'' When Egypt sent more than 38,000 troops to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Storm, there was also talk of a new economic order. At issue was the lack of investment and aid from the ultra-rich Gulf states to poorer Arab countries like Egypt.

Egypt and Syria are to maintain troops in the Gulf region as part of a long-term defense of the area. In return, the Gulf states are expected to greatly increase their financial support of those countries.

Finance ministers from the six Gulf states agreed April 22 to establish a lending fund for the development of Arab countries. Early reports say the fund will have an initial capital of $5 billion and will favor private sector, rather than governmental, development projects.

Gulf states' showcase fund

Initial reaction to the news was muted, with observers noting that the sum was not large when considering the billions already tranferred to the region in the past two decades. The fund was described as ``a showcase'' and ``a means of leverage.''

``For a few days after the war they spoke about the need to address the issue of development as a basis of any security arrangement,'' says an Arab academic. ``But all the ideas about the redistribution of wealth have been dropped from their agenda very quickly.''

Of Cairo's worsening poverty, he says: ``I think it is outrageous. Due to a geological accident you have terrific wealth buried under some feudal societies. Other, very large and very old cultures have nothing.

``Cairo is the most important city in the Arab world and it is also once again its political center, its cultural forum. Part of the problem is management, profiteering, the absence of planning. But part of it is the fact that Arab funds to Egypt have been very small compared with its relative importance,'' he says.

Cairo-based economists expect the coming year to bring even harder news for the already-pressed public. In recent days the Egyptian government has announced price increases of more than 20 percent for a wide range of goods including gasoline, public transport, and electricity. Further price rises are expected in the coming weeks.

The austerity measures are part of a tough series of reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund. For more than three years, Egypt has been negotiating a new agreement to reduce the country's $35 billion foreign debt.

``Now even people who have money are scared to spend it,'' says Muhammad, the owner of a ramshackle photo studio. ``People are spending less, eating less.

``There are kids who spend their days working under cars. They work in factories. They gather rubbish and sort it, kids of nine or ten,'' he says.

``The bosses are exploiting the fact that families need money. They give the kids little money.''

Muhammad estimated a day's wage at five Egyptian pounds, less than $2. Many, he says, work only for the food they receive.

The quality of peoples' diets is also falling, as the price of meat and other basic foodstuffs rises beyond the reach of most people. The lack of public services is also creating widespread but unreported health problems, exacerbated by the already poor health of children and women.

On Friday market day in one part of Old Cairo, customers crush around crude wooden carts piled high with the refuse of nearby slaughter houses.

Amid a swarm of flies, a woman in the customary black dress and shawl bargains for several minutes before bringing down the price of a small goat's head. Others labored over selecting cattle and chicken's feet.

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