Giza offers a picture of Morsi's challenge
GIZA, EGYPT // The true picture of President Mohammed Morsi's inheritance 50 days into his term can be found in Giza's dilapidated apartments where tap water has been shut down for a week and every month is a struggle to make ends meet.
"Here we are not seen," said Maha, 29, a housewife, sitting in the lime-green living room of a neighbour's flat. "The politicians come with promises, but after elections are over they are nowhere near us."
The largest decoration on the wall is a framed page of the Quran and an old clock stopped at 2.37 for lack of batteries - a potent metaphor of the feeling among Egypt's impoverished that there has been no real progression over the past several decades.
Mr Morsi's government is coming against the challenge of reforming the rundown bureaucracy left after the collapse of the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Over nearly three decades, Mubarak's lack of imagination and commitment to reform allowed Egypt to become a moribund state, rife with corruption and inequality.
The economic situation has worsened during the chaotic transition to Mr Morsi's presidency. Official joblessness rose to 12.6 per cent this month from 11.8 per cent during the same period last year.
With his political power consolidated after a shake-up of the military on Auguest 12, the real test for Mr Morsi will be whether he can fix the broken system.
The Muslim Brotherhood, from whose ranks Mr Morsi emerged, has proposed a "Renaissance Project" for Egypt. The platform proposes to transform Egypt into a more prosperous country through encouraging the private sector and reforms that will lead to more equal income distribution and higher wages.
There is little doubt, according to economic studies and economists, that one of the most destructive forces in Egypt's economy is its huge expenditure on subsidies for energy and bread. About 20 per cent of the budget is spent on subsidies for energy, which is higher than the combined budget allocations for education and health care, which are 11 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.
In neighbourhoods such as Saft El Laban, which means milk container, policy platforms ring hollow as residents register the stark contrast of their lives to those of the more well-off just down the motorway.
A huge motorway flyover crosses through the neighbourhood, allowing quick passage for residents of the high-end villas in walled compounds on the outskirts to Cairo's city centre. Just below, the main street of Saft El Laban is a pandemonium of rickshaw drivers, storefronts, horse-drawn carts and bright lights. Men roll metal gas containers down the street and as of late haul jerry cans of water because of the shortage.
A walk down any side street, sometimes pitch black, leads to dense, informal housing that has been built without permits or approvals from the government, This is where most Egyptians live, including Said Abdel Hameid, his wife, Maha, and their three children.
Mr Abdel Hameid is relatively well off by Egyptian standards. He earns about 1,500 Egyptian pounds (Dh900) a month working eight hours a day as a stockman for Cairo University before seven hours as an office manager for a TV production studio six days a week. At about $2,960 (Dh10,900) per year, he is just above the average gross domestic product per capita in Egypt, which is $2,781, according to the United Nations.
But as soon as his monthly wage is handed to him in a stack of rumpled bills, it quickly begins to disappear.
"By God, sometimes I don't know how we can survive," he said, sitting with his wife and neighbours, while the children played in the communal stairwell.
About 500 pounds a month goes paying of his debt for household goods: two fans, an old television and a battered tabletop. Another 25 pounds is paid for a natural gas connection - a rarity for many - that will be amortised over seven years. That does not include the cost of gas used, which averages another 10 pounds a month.
Then comes education costs. The public school system is so dysfunctional that nearly every family in Egypt, poor and rich, pays for private lessons in a bid to improve their children's' chances at getting a job. The school of Mr Abdel Hameid's daughter, Sama, 7, requires 100 pounds a month for after-school lessons. Another 150 pounds is paid for other private lessons from teachers.
Rent for their flat, which consists of two small bedrooms and a living room, is 250 pounds.
That leaves the Abdel Hameid family with about 465 pounds to get through the month. It is barely enough to put basic food on the table. At 5 pounds a kilo, tomatoes are a luxury. To keep up with hungry mouths, the only option is to buy macaroni and rice in bulk. Foul, a boiled bean dish, is a mainstay of their cuisine.
The tight household economics of the Abdel Hameids leave a glaring weakness: how to deal with illness or a health care emergency. Mr Abdel Hameid recently had an ear infection, something easily treated, but he had to wait in agony for several days while family members and neighbours pitched in a few pounds to buy the antibiotics. They cost 95 pounds, almost a quarter of the money left over for monthly expenditures.
"When someone is sick, everyone has to help," said Maha, his wife. "You'd be crazy to go to a public hospital for a big illness. They treat you like you are nothing, leave you waiting."
Alaa Ghanem, a physician who has studied Egypt's health care services for the Egyptian Centre for Individual Rights, said that the system in Egypt "doesn't provide a chance or stability for poor people".
More than 70 per cent of health care expenditures were out-of-pocket, meaning they were unable to get or afford coverage from insurance providers. What's more, public hospitals are so low on supplies that many people are forced to buy their own syringes, bedpans, gauze, medicine and other supplies.
"We have a deteriorating health care system," he said. "It's not just bad, but it's getting worse. We have high out-of-pocket spending and low government spending."
For many Egyptians, though, the refrain is not for handouts, but for steady work.
The Abdel Hameids' neighbour, Rania Roushdy, was divorced last year and lives on the 20 pounds she receives when a hospital calls her for cleaning work. Some weeks they don't call and she has to turn to her sister for help in providing for her two daughters, 17 and 9.
"I don't want to ask for help," she said. "All I want is a job that I can rely on. I don't care what it is. No one likes to get money from others without working. A job with dignity, steady pay. That's what we want."
Updated: August 26, 2012 04:00 AM