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Egyptians Angered by New Austerity After Eid Feast

Cars are seen at a petrol station in downtown Cairo, Egypt, June 19, 2018.

Many Egyptians hoped to ignore their economic hardship as they celebrated the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Instead, they were told they will have to tighten their belts even more.

With the Eid al-Fitr feast in full swing, the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi on Saturday declared it was slashing fuel subsidies, pushing up prices of petrol and public transport by as much as 50 percent.

People returning to work Tuesday in Cairo seethed at the new sums they had to pay to board buses or fill up their vehicles with petrol.

"We knew there were going to be price rises, but didn't expect it to be this big," said Sabah Hassan, a mother of six who works as a cleaner at a nursery.

Hassan said her transportation costs have jumped from around 5 pounds per trip ($0.28) to at least 10 ($0.56).

"My household gas has doubled, and so has my water bill — how will my 1,000-pound ($55) wages cover it all?"

The fuel price increase was the latest in a raft of austerity measures Egypt is carrying out as part of major economic reforms, the price of a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

FILE - People ride on a bus as posters with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi are displayed in Cairo, Egypt, March 25, 2018.
FILE - People ride on a bus as posters with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi are displayed in Cairo, Egypt, March 25, 2018.

The country's economy, which was battered by the unrest that followed a 2011 popular uprising, has begun to improve since Sissi came to power in 2014. Authorities and many economists credit the reforms with helping to attract long-term foreign investment and accelerate growth in gross domestic product.

But fiscal reforms have hit ordinary Egyptians hard.

The fuel subsidy cuts came just days after the government said prices for electricity would rise by an average of 26 percent and for piped drinking water by nearly half.

Sissi, who was re-elected against virtually no competition in a landslide April vote, has urged patience from the Egyptian people, saying recently the country could only reap the benefits of austerity with everyone on board.

"I don't like to talk about other countries, but I hope we take note," he said earlier this month in an apparent reference to protests over tax increases in Jordan — warning that similar unrest in Egypt threatened stability.

The government has said it will increase welfare spending to help poor Egyptians.

Some Egyptians said they would willingly foot the bill for stability and an improved economy. Aside from economic problems, Egypt faces an Islamist militancy in its Sinai Peninsula.

"It'll cost me more to fuel my motorbike, but this is a small price to pay to support Sissi and put Egypt back on track," said Ahmed Mohamed, a 36-year-old cafe worker.

'All we do is spend'

Mohamed said he was glad to see the back of the 2011 uprising that had toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak and then the Muslim Brotherhood. Other Egyptians did not share his views.

"Sissi should think of ordinary people for once," said Nermin, a textile industry manager, declining to give her full name. "All we do is spend, and see nothing in return."

A taxi driver, who gave his name as Mohamed Mubarak, said it was becoming more and more expensive to run his car.

"In Mubarak's days, I would go to the petrol station with 50 pounds, fill her up, and have money left. Now it's 140 pounds. All for the sake of tahiya Masr [long live Egypt]," he said, mocking a Sissi slogan.

Despite discontent, most Egyptians said they had no plans to protest — out of fear of chaos that might follow, or of arrest.

Rare, small-scale protests broke out last month over a sudden increase in fares on Cairo's metro system. Several people were arrested in connection with the demonstrations, which were made illegal in 2013 without permission from the interior ministry.

"No one will raise their voice — people are scared and feel shackled," Mubarak said.

He charged 30 pounds for a normally 20-pound fare.