Egyptians Hoard Food as Protests Raise Concern of More Mayhem

Ashraf Fouad has stuffed 30,000 Egyptian pounds ($4,300) in a wall safe in his Cairo apartment. Across town, Niven Mankarious has been stocking up on chicken, cheese and other food to last her family a month.

Like many Egyptians, they are anxious over the unclear direction their country is taking and fearful that violence will be ignited by June 30 protests aimed at ousting the country’s first democratically elected civilian president, the Islamist Mohamed Mursi. Tensions over this watershed in Egypt’s transition from autocratic rule has battered its stocks and bonds, with the risk of sovereign default at an all-time high.

“I don’t know how violent this is going to get,” said Fouad, a 32-year-old marketing manager. “To be honest, the only thing I know is that nothing is clear now. It hasn’t been for a while.”

The protests coincide with Mursi’s first anniversary in office, a year detractors paint as one of turmoil and uncertainty, of deepening poverty and sectarian violence, of mounting political polarization. Hopes for a better life after a 2011 popular revolt toppled Hosni Mubarak have faded, and the military has threatened to step in to prevent the political crisis from spiraling out of control.

Mursi, in a speech Wednesday, acknowledged making mistakes, while blaming opponents for the turmoil. “Polarization has reached a state that endangers our nascent democratic experience and threatens chaos,” he cautioned.

Markets Reeling

Egypt’s markets are reflecting the tumult. Egypt’s main stock index has slumped 14 percent in June, the world’s fourth-biggest drop according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Default risk is a record 888 basis points, putting Egypt among the riskiest 10 credits of the world.

Millions in the nation of 85 million have signed a petition for early elections circulated by the grassroots Tamarud, or Rebel, movement, the group says. Its goal is to amass 15 million, surpassing the number of votes Mursi received to become president. Mursi supporters say the push for an early presidential vote has no legal grounds.

“It’s going to be hard for people to deal with the reality that June 30 is probably not going to succeed in pushing Mursi out of power,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, said by phone.

Secularists and youth activists, disillusioned with Mursi’s promises to be a president for all Egyptians, see an opportunity to take back a revolution they say he and his Muslim Brotherhood backers hijacked.

Islamist Agenda Seen

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen an attempt to rebuild a new dictatorship but this time, in the name of religion and not in the name of authoritarian rule,” said Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the opposition National Salvation Front.

Islamists, repressed under Mubarak, see the demand for Mursi’s exit as a dangerous challenge to gains they achieved through the ballot box.

The point where the two views collide has been the trigger for conflict in the year since Mursi narrowly defeated Mubarak’s last premier.

Since his election, the president has faced a nation increasingly impatient for the change Mubarak’s overthrow had promised. Unemployment has soared beyond 13 percent and foreign reserves have dropped by more than half since the uprising. Growth is near its lowest in two decades.

Motives Suspected

Instead of tackling Egypt’s economic woes, Mursi’s critics charge, he has put the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood at the top of his priorities, appointing Islamists to influential positions. He has spent his first year mired in power struggles, including frequent conflicts with a justice system Islamists say is biased against them. Mursi’s detractors accuse his backers of trying to stack the courts.

Against this background, the military’s comments loom large.

“It’s becoming very clear who has the upper hand when it comes to moving things, when it comes to breaking stalemates or dead ends or even, if necessary, taking over,” said Emad Shahin, a public policy professor at the American University in Cairo. “The military, of course.”

Defense Minister Abdelfatah Al-Seesi’s warning this week that the military would not stand idly by if unrest escalates seemed calculated to raise it above the fray and reaffirm the role it cast for itself after Mubarak’s ouster as guardian of the revolution. The generals who assumed interim rule before Mursi were accused by many activists of mismanaging the transition.

Military Intervention

“The only realistic scenario for Mursi’s downfall is if the military steps in,” said Brookings’ Hamid. “That will be undemocratic and, in my view, very dangerous for Egypt.”

Mourad Ali, media adviser for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said he hoped the opposition would agree to dialogue.

“How is this going to end? God forbid, there may be blood and chaos for months and then we will sit and talk and agree,” he said. “Why don’t we sit and agree now?”

Dawoud, the opposition National Salvation Front spokesman, dismissed the overture as disingenuous.

“Their calls for dialogue are always hollow and always come without an agenda or even a single sign of goodwill,” he said.

It’s that sort of conflict that has unsettled Egyptians such as Fouad and Mankarious ahead of the protests. Stocking up on food, or stuffing cash into a safe is a lesson they learned after the 2011 uprising.

Mankarious says she has no faith in Mursi or the opposition, and would like the military to take control again until the situation stabilizes.

“I hope the day will be peaceful,” she said. ’’We don’t want more bloodshed; we don’t want more people to be killed or more mothers to weep for their children.’’

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