x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Suez is back to work, but the future feels very uncertain

Businesses have reopened and the new de facto ruler of Suez city, the Egyptian military, now maintains a firm presence, but what will become of Suez¿s hard-fought battle for freedom is still anyone¿s guess.

Anti-government protesters stand atop a police vehicle in Suez, Egypt.
Anti-government protesters stand atop a police vehicle in Suez, Egypt.

SUEZ CITY // Residents of this industrial city find hope in the growing signs of stability on their streets, after days of upheaval that has paralysed the local government and its once powerful security network.

Businesses have reopened while residents are tentatively leaving their homes. The new de facto ruler of Suez city, the Egyptian military, now maintains a firm presence, its soldiers directing traffic and cleaning up the aftermath of the mobs who, only a few days ago, torched police vehicles and burnt down a fire station.

Yet, as some normality takes hold, an unfamiliar discourse swirls in Suez's coffee shops. Where welders, ship captains and taxi drivers used to discuss football and food prices over tea and dominoes, now the talk is about a new, but very uncertain, future.

Many discuss the whereabouts of Suez's governor, Mohammed Saif Din, who residents say has not been seen in days. And while much of the dreaded police force has all but evaporated, concerns abound that a local government with the same flaws as the one they essentially deposed - corruption, brutality, apathy - will re-emerge.

Indeed, what will become of Suez's hard-fought battle for freedom is still anyone's guess. While in Tahrir Square the protests are calling for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, in Suez they are quick to defend him, perhaps out of fear.

Some of the first protests against Mr Mubarak and his government erupted in this city of half a million people. Days before Cairo's mass protests began on January 25, hundreds of workers in Suez rallied against factory owners, who had begun replacing them with less expensive labourers from India, Thailand and Bangladesh.

During the next week, as the protests gathered pace in other parts of Egypt, Suez exploded. Thousands took to the city's Arbaeen district, protesting against high unemployment, rising prices and low wages and also what they said was endemic corruption among officials and systemic police harassment and brutality. One man tried to set himself on fire.

"Every day we hear something happening in Cairo, in Alexandria, but we never thought it would happen here in Suez," said Mohammed Foukry, 38, a shipping agent and part-time taxi driver. "The people here they complain, but they also accept so much. But then, all of a sudden … boom! There were no leaders, nobody telling us you go here or there. Everybody just came out on the streets."

The people of Suez, regarded by many Egyptians as tough-minded, had borne much of the brunt of their country's wars with Israel. It was virtually flattened after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and damaged again in 1973, and has since been rebuilt into uniform clusters of staid four-storey apartment complexes.

By January 28, their toughness was on full display: out of 24 killed across the country during the protests, 13 were from Suez

"After January 25, everybody here hate the police," Mr Foukry said, 38, who said he watched from his mother's apartment as protesters set fire to the police station and half a dozen police vehicles. "I just watch, but in my heart I am happy. Happy to see the police running. The police always stop us and make excuses to get more money from us. They just create problems for us."

The army, which has gone to great lengths to stabilise Suez's economy and its prized possession, the Suez Canal, insists that the governorate is no longer a violent flashpoint.

At least superficially, that is true. The protests ended a few days ago and the city is back to work, with banks open, people shopping and filling the markets and cafes.

Throughout the violence, the Suez Canal did not shut down. Some two per cent of global oil production passes through the canal, and those ships generated $4 billion (Dh14.7bn) in revenue in 2009/2010, according to Egyptian authorities. With the tourism industry battered by the protests, soldiers are escorting oil tankers from the port to distribution.

The army is now in control of the city, much to the relief of its residents. But while people say they feel freer to discuss what before they could only joke about, there is still a palpable fear. Not long after two reporters from The National entered the al Borsa coffee shop along Al Geish street in downtown Suez, two patrons slipped out and within minutes, soldiers appeared.

The situation in Suez is emblematic of most Egyptian grievances. Unemployment stood at 11 per cent, according to figures on the Suez governate website. Most people hold down at least two jobs and residents say prices are rising faster than salaries.

Compounding this are allegations of pervasive greed and corruption among officials.

Mohammed Lokka, 32, said he applied to the police for a taxi licence but was given one that did not allow him to either pick up passengers or enter the train or bus stations. "We haven't had this sort of licence for five years," he said.

With a family of five to support, Mr Lokka felt he had no choice but to defy the restrictions. He was stopped nine times, he said, and each time police issued a hefty fine.

Within the space of two days, his car was impounded twice, and each time police demanded he pay 8,000 Egyptian pounds to have it released, he said.

Finally, the financial hardships and official red tape was too much to bear. "I thought it would be better if I died."

So on January 23, standing near a police station, he doused himself in gasoline and tried to light a match. He was stopped by friends, causing only some superficial scarring to his hands.

Mr Lokka does not care much whether Mr Mubarak will fall or not. What he wants is to be able to drive his car without police stopping him every 10 minutes and demanding fines.

With the police now run out of town, and the governor gone to ground, many are beginning to question what will become of their city.

Mr Foukry, the father of three, says he is not against Mr Mubarak. "He's a good man. I have a picture of him in my house. But he is old, he is 82 years old, and he relies too much on the people around him."

One of those people is Mr El Din. Mr Foukry says the governor was with Mr Mubarak in Ethiopia in 1995 when the president was shot and perhaps saved his life. As a reward, Mr Mubarak "gave him the city".

But the question remains, for how long will the government, any government, allow a lucrative city such as Suez, with its oil production and transportation hub, to go un-governed and how will this change the freedom the people of Suez are enjoying today?

"We don't know how long we can last", Mr Foukry said. "How long we can be like this."