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Protests in Egypt Expose Rift Between Rich and Poor

As the government of Egypt shakes from a broad-based uprising, long-simmering resentments have burst into open class warfare.

Over the past several days, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians — from indigent fruit peddlers and doormen to students and engineers, even wealthy landlords — poured into the streets together to denounce President Hosni Mubarak and battle his omnipresent security police.

Egyptian demonstrators shout slogans next to burning police vehicles in Cairo on January 28, 2011.
Mohammed Abed | AFP | Getty Images
Egyptian demonstrators shout slogans next to burning police vehicles in Cairo on January 28, 2011.

Then, on Friday night, the police pulled out of Egypt’s major cities abruptly, and tensions between rich and poor exploded.

Looters from Cairo’s vast shantytowns attacked gleaming suburban shopping malls, wild rumors swirled of gunfights at the bridges and gates to the most expensive neighborhoods and some of their residents turned wistful about Mr. Mubarak and his authoritarian rule.

“It is as if a domestic war is declared,” said Sarah Elayashi, 33, from an apartment in the affluent neighborhood of Heliopolis, not far from Mr. Mubarak’s palace. “And we have nothing to defend ourselves but kitchen knives and mop sticks.”

“The protesters are against us,” she added. “We hope President Mubarak stays because at least we have national security. I wish we could be like the United States with a democracy, but we cannot. We have to have a ruler with an iron hand.”

Now some accuse the Mubarak government of deliberately fanning class tensions in order to create demands for the restoration of its brutal security state. But such resentments have built up here for nearly a decade outside of public view.

“These big guys are stealing all the money,” said Mohamed Ibraham, a 24-year-old textile worker standing at his second job as a fruit peddler in a hard-pressed neighborhood called Dar-al-Salam. “If they were giving us our rights, why would we protest? People are desperate.”

He had little sympathy for those frightened by the specter of looting. He complained that he could barely afford his rent and said the police routinely humiliated him by shaking him down for money, overturning his cart or stealing his fruit. “And then we hear about how these big guys all have these new boats and the 100,000 pound villas. They are building housing, but not for us — for those people up high.”

The widening chasm between rich and poor in Cairo has been one of the conspicuous aspects of city life over the last decade — and especially the last five years. Though there were always extremes of wealth and poverty here, until recently the rich lived more or less among the poor — in grander apartments or more spacious apartments but mixed together in the same city.

But as the Mubarak administration has taken steps toward privatizing more government businesses, kicking off an economic boom for some, rich Egyptians have fled the city. They have flocked to gated communities full of big American-style homes around country clubs, and the remoteness of their lives from those of average Egyptians has become starkly visible.

The new rich communities and older affluent enclaves closer to the city were seized with fear over the weekend after a rash of looting Friday night.

At the ravaged City Centre mall, looters had pulled bank A.T.M.’s from the walls, smashed in skylights and carted away televisions, and on Sunday a small crowd was inspecting the damage and debating the causes.

A group of men standing guard said they had watched the police abandon the mall as if on command Friday at 11 p.m., and the first looters arrived in cars shortly after. They argued that the government had tried to create the impression of chaos. Others blamed hordes who poured in from impoverished neighborhoods, or Bedouins who they said came in from the desert.

Ayman Adbel Al, 43, a civil engineer inspecting the damage with his two teenage sons, blamed Mr. Mubarak, arguing that he had allowed the growing class divisions in Egyptian society to build up for years until they exploded last week.

“I can say that I am well off, but I hate it, too. It is not humanitarian,” he said, showing a picture of himself with his family at the protests Saturday. The only people who wanted Mr. Mubarak to stay in power, he argued, were rich people “afraid for their money.”

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