Upheaval drains life from Egypt businesses
CAIRO — In the medieval bazaar known as Khan al Khalili, Egyptian shopkeepers call to the few foreigners winding through narrow streets and tables of faux Pharaonic trinkets and intricate glass perfume bottles.
At the Mirhan & Garbis Yazejian family jewelry store, the window display is barren. So are the shelves inside.
“For security reasons, we don’t have anything on display right now,” explained jeweler Ohan Yazejian. “Tourism is nothing. A big zero for two years now.”
After two years of political upheaval, those who earn their livelihoods from tourism — once Egypt’s third-largest industry — are struggling.
Street fighting near two posh hotels downtown left tourists choking on tear gas last week. Unknown gunmen shot up the lobby of the Semiramis Intercontinental; guests barricaded themselves in their rooms before fleeing.
More than 50 people have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded during protests against President Mohamed Morsy in the past 10 days; a mob attacked the presidential palace with rocks and Molotov cocktails on Friday.
Three Suez Canal cities remain under military-enforced curfews as a result of bloody confrontations.
“We get some tourists now and then, mostly Chinese tourists — they just try and sell things,” Yazejian said. “At least 20 percent of the silver and gold workshops have closed. Others now work in copper because it is cheaper.”
After the 2011 revolution that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, lawlessness erupted as police withdrew; looters robbed shops in “the Khan,” as it is known to locals.
Now when unrest starts, vendors remove their most valuable displays.
“It’s very bad now,” said Ibrahim al Alam, 52, general manager of the Babany Tourism shop. “There are no tourists, and we are in the high tourist season. … There has to be stability. If there is no stability, there are no tourists.”
He said, “2011 was better than 2012, and this year I don’t see any business here. Every year is worse than the next.”
As two foreign journalists walk into the bazaar, one desperate shopkeeper calls out to his fellow merchants: “Look, there are tourists!”
Yazejian, the jeweler, said he believes calm will return “if the political powers just sit together and try and solve this. Or the Muslim Brotherhood just goes away.
“They won’t go away, though,” he adds ruefully. “They won’t leave like Mubarak did, in 18 days. And if people try and make them, there will be a lot of blood. It will lead to a civil war, and nobody wants that.
“I think if things get too bad, the army will step in.”
Such fear is widespread. Egyptian Defense minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said last week that Egypt is at risk of collapse if political unrest continues.
In the heart of the Khan, El Fishawy café first opened in 1710 and boasts of being continuously open for more than 200 years. For the past 13 years, owner Atif Eid has served tea and shisha — water pipes with flavored tobacco — to customers.
Now, said Eid, 36, “people worry about going out. Tourists, no — we have very little. Today I had four or five from Spain, but the rest of my customers are all Egyptians.
“We don’t know who is right and who is wrong,” he said, discussing Friday’s mayhem at the presidential palace. “But this regime doesn’t know anything. (President) Morsy doesn’t have any political solutions.”
With so many political, economic and social problems plaguing Egypt, “it’s a pity for the Brotherhood. They had a chance to do something, and they let it go just like this,” Yazejian said, snapping his fingers. “It’s a pity for the country — Egypt doesn’t deserve this.”
The jeweler said he voted against Morsy in June’s presidential election and in December against a controversial constitution that opponents say was manipulated by Islamists.
Now, Yazejian said, he hopes the opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front, will do the political groundwork needed to win upcoming parliamentary elections.
Otherwise, he said, Islamists will win a majority in the lower house, completing their control of government, and “it will be finished for us.”
“I want them to concentrate on the elections, win it and then start changing things,” he said.
Betsy Hiel is the foreign correspondent for Trib Total Media. Email her at [email protected].