Egypt military’s power play welcomed by residents of Suez

By JEFFREY FLEISHMAN | Los Angeles Times | Published: July 11, 2013

SUEZ, Egypt — Military lookouts keep watch over freighters in the blurry distance and checkpoints choke the streets leading into this industrial city, where garrisoned soldiers carry rifles and loaves of bread along the sea.

The outdoor market has reopened and alleys bustle amid the scent of mangoes, spices and fish stacked on ice. Troops look down from armored personnel carriers; they check identification cards and open car trunks to search for bombs, guns and smuggled goods.

Order has returned, and people, at least for the moment, are slipping back to familiar rhythms after last week’s coup that overthrew President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. This city has stood with the army through wars and crises, and few seemed to mind that the generals had pushed aside democracy.

“We celebrated when the army came back to power,” said Aya Ahmed, who sells cashews and pistachios from a shaded spot. “There’ll be security now. We’ve had a lot of problems. It seems as if we’re always sitting in fear, worrying.”

But poverty, layoffs, labor strife and a national economy in free fall have troubled the city for years. Stability here is a crucial gauge of whether the army — and a new coalition government — can nudge Egypt away from collapse. The military imposed a state of emergency last week in part to protect the vital shipping lanes of the Suez Canal from militants and, if political unrest continues, civil strife.

What’s the economy like, a man asked two young men standing near a watermelon seller.

Bola Ishaq revealed the contents of his pockets: three coins, the equivalent of less than 50 cents.

“I’ve been looking for a job for a month. I’d do anything,” said Ishaq, who has been studying information technology. “I want to leave Egypt. Any place is better than here.”

His friend, Ahmed Bayaa, listened for a while and said: “I’m sure there will be jobs. But it takes effort. I don’t want to leave. The country can benefit from me.”

Then, like many here, he demonized the Muslim Brotherhood and its one-year rule of the country. The Brotherhood and other Islamist groups are increasingly referred to as terrorists, a characterization the army has extended to armed extremists battling security forces in the Sinai Peninsula and, more recently, to bearded figures leading political parties.

In this deeply divided nation, Suez is a glimpse into a large swath of Egypt that desires stability over political freedoms. That sentiment justifies the army’s formidable presence behind the barbed wire outside the town hall, which through two years of upheaval has been the scene of protests and clashes. Residents say the army and the people are one in Suez, where young soldiers in fatigues stand in the subsidized-bread lines with laborers, mothers and teachers.

There were rallies here against the army rule that lasted from the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 until Morsi’s election last year. But they have largely faded with the military’s re-emergence. The Suez Canal accounts for about 8 percent of international commercial shipping traffic and earns Egypt nearly $4 billion annually. That income has dipped in recent years as fewer ships sail the canal because of the political unrest.

“I want the military to run the country,” said Karim Sayed as his cleaver echoed off the butcher block of his family’s meat business.

“The army doesn’t belong to any political party and it will keep us from anything leading to terrorism,” said his brother, Mohamed. “We are the city that loves the military the most.”

In some ways, despite a revolution and a coup in the last two years, time doesn’t seem to have moved in Suez. “Happy New Year” streamers welcoming 2010 hang on the blackened wall of a cafe, where men sip tea and the waiter mutes the TV when the call to prayer begins at the mosque across the street. The men have the same complaints they’ve had for a while now.

“Our economy is going down,” said Mustafa Rashwan, a 25-year-old oil rig worker, who sat with his passport and travel papers. “I’m going to Iraq. I’m on a drilling team and I can earn 10 times more there than what I can here. A lot of people can’t find jobs. I got mine through political connections. You need those.”

He looked up at the TV, where commentators tried to decipher the nation’s strange and dangerous politics.

“No one on our political scene now deserves to be president,” said Rashwan. “Our politics are a mess but we never seem to learn from our mistakes. It’s excellent the army is back in control.”

Blocks away, toward the main square near the outdoor market, Aya Ahmed, the nut vendor, complained that inflation under Morsi had spiraled even higher than it was during Mubarak’s long rule. All the shopkeepers know this; they polish their counters and shine their windows but fewer customers come.

“We can’t really raise our prices too much more because no one has money to pay,” said Ahmed. Pistachios used to sell for about $7 a pound; now they go for closer to $8.

Safaa Mohamed raced through the shade of umbrellas, past vegetable stalls, stopping near a man selling grapes. A social worker, she had no tolerance for Morsi and the Brotherhood but said Egypt’s new rulers must help the economy and bring jobs.

“When Morsi was ousted,” the price of tomatoes dropped by more than two-thirds, she said. “He fixed nothing and was a disaster. Companies are shutting down.

“Egypt needs unity. Everyone has to sit together and have one vision. We must listen to the youth,” she said. “They are more aware of what the country needs. We can’t be ruled by 60-year-old men anymore.”

An army patrol passed; the Egyptian flag flashed bright in the wind. The road leading out of town was crowded. Cars inched toward checkpoints. Drivers waited along the coast, where freighters and tankers sailed through a smooth sea, watched over by lookouts in high towers the colors of sand and dust.

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.


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