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The people Egypt’s revolution left behind

In the factory town of Shubra El Kheima, outside Cairo, little has changed for residents in the two years since protests in Tahrir Square ousted Egypt’s longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Amr Esmat guides his tuk tuk through a rutted dirt street between brick buildings so close together that they almost entirely block the sky. Bright laundry flutters from the balconies above as the three-wheeled motorized rickshaw bounces over a pothole and past a pile of burning garbage.

Down the road, past a herd of brown sheep grazing on rotting garbage, Mr. Esmat points out a dirty building with rubbish piled on the roof. “That’s a government hospital. If you go there, you won’t find any doctors,” he says.

He turns the tuk tuk onto a main street, where the tiny three-person vehicle is dwarfed by the trucks heading to the many factories in the city. Unable to find work operating a lathe, Esmat carries passengers around Shubra el Kheima all day instead, usually earning less than $5 a day – not enough to properly care for his wife and four children. He points to a glass-front store with automatic doors. “That’s a big supermarket, but nobody goes there unless they have a lot of money.”

He passes a gas station that’s out of gas before turning back into the warren of narrow dirt streets. In an open storefront, fresh meat hangs from hooks on the ceiling. A calf lies curled up below it, calm and docile. “Look, no one is buying,” Esmat says.

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Two years after the uprising that unseated Egypt’s president of three decades and ushered in hopes of positive change, many Egyptians feel more weary than empowered. The daily injustices like poverty, unemployment, and police abuse that propelled many to join the protests are still bearing down on their lives. The politicians’ smiles on the faded election posters lingering on the walls remind people that round after round of voting has done little to change this.

Tomorrow, the second anniversary of the uprising, Esmat the tuk tuk driver won’t be celebrating. “Egypt is broken,” he says simply. “We haven’t seen any progress or development [since the revolution], whether in education or health or anything. We don’t see anything positive.”

Instead of improvement, Egyptians have witnessed wave after wave of tragedy over the past two years: police killings of protesters, the Army shooting and running over mostly Christian protesters in October 2011, extremists burning churches, a bloody scene in a soccer stadium that left 75 dead, a train crash that killed a bus full of children, and another that killed 19 police conscripts. New tragedies strike before justice is served for previous incidents.

‘Nothing changed, and nothing will change’

Egypt’s uprising began by capitalizing on popular anger over police abuse, and brought millions to the street as it expanded to include frustrations about government oppression and social injustice. High hopes for change after former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster sagged as power struggles and bitter political rifts developed. Islamists, who often portray themselves as in step with the average Egyptian, have swept every election since the uprising, but perhaps their biggest accomplishment is voting through a new constitution, over the bitter complaints of their rivals.

Mohamed Morsi, a former Brotherhood leader elected president last summer, took office pledging to make Egypt better. But he inherited creaky bureaucracy and crumbling infrastructure from decades of neglect and corruption. His government faces a large budget deficit and meager foreign reserves as the value of the Egyptian pound drops rapidly.

One of the hopes of people like Esmat, after the revolution, was that the growing gap between rich and poor in Egypt would begin to shrink. So far, they have not seen their hopes realized in a country where 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, unemployment is more than 12 percent, and youth unemployment is far higher.

Esmat, who is illiterate, rents this tuk tuk for 60 Egyptian pounds (about $9) a day. The maximum he earns by ferrying residents of Shubra el Kheima to their destinations is about $13.50 a day, leaving him just $4.50 – at most – to provide for his family. He went to a trade school to learn how to operate a lathe, but for the past seven years, he has been unable to find a workshop that is hiring.

“When I go back to my kids with 30 pounds, how am I going to teach them, or pay the rent, or pay electricity?” he asks.

He moved to Shubra el Kheima 30 years ago, from a Cairo neighborhood called Shubra. Apartments became harder to find as Egypt’s urban population grew, so he moved to the area full of factories on the outskirts of Cairo. These days, those factories are not big enough to provide jobs for all of Shubra’s many residents, and garbage piles up on the street. “They burn it because what else are they going to do?” he says. “No one picks it up, though they charge us for it in the electricity bill.”

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Seventeen-year-old Mohamed Hussein is also a tuk tuk driver in Shubra el Kheima. He is a licensed air conditioner technician, but can’t find work in that field. The meager wages he earns driving the tiny vehicle won’t earn him enough money to buy an apartment and get married, he says. “The revolution was good because we were demanding our rights, like the right to work in a factory,” he says, his thick hair plastered back with gel and a faint mustache on his lip. “… but nothing changed, and nothing will change.”

Police impunity

Reforming the police and security forces is another demand of the uprising that has gone unmet. Police abuse, torture, and extrajudicial killing have continued unabated in the last two years, according to a report released this week by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Police are rarely held accountable for breaking the law, and there has been no attempt at real reform of the police and security forces, according to the rights group, despite the fact that police abuse was one of the issues to spark the uprising. 

Confrontations, sometimes deadly, between citizens and police remain relatively common. Just last week, at least four people were killed when clashes broke out between Shubra el Kheima residents and police after an officer reportedly accidentally killed a resident with a stray bullet while chasing down a drug dealer.

Tuk tuk drivers say police don’t ask for bribes as much as they used to. But others say police behavior hasn’t changed much since the uprising. Ibrahim Mohamed works in a small shop, hammering sheets of galvanized steel into pots used to heat water for bathing. He says nothing else has improved, either. Prices have gone up, fewer people are buying, and he has to stretch his budget to new lengths to provide for his family.

“People who are happy won’t feel it. We are the people who will feel it, because we are working with our hands,” he says as he pounds the steel with his wooden mallet.

Esmat puts it another way. Things are the way they have always been, he says, adding, “He who has crushes he who doesn’t have.”