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Egyptians stock up on water, food as protests in Cairo rage on

Ordinary life halted by chaos and lawlessness

Looters snatched items after a mass breakout Sunday at the Abu Zaabal prison, about 16 miles north of Cairo, where antigovernment protesters took to the streets for a sixth day. Looters snatched items after a mass breakout Sunday at the Abu Zaabal prison, about 16 miles north of Cairo, where antigovernment protesters took to the streets for a sixth day. (AFP/Getty Images)
By Ryan Lucas
Associated Press / February 1, 2011

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CAIRO — After 24 years in Canada, Rafik and Leila Baladi moved back to Cairo two weeks ago to settle down.

Now, like many other residents of the Egyptian capital, they are stocking up on bottled water and essential foodstuffs as chaos engulfs this huge city of some 18 million.

“We just don’t know what is going to happen,’’ said Leila, who, with her husband, was pushing a shopping cart loaded with frozen chicken breasts, fava beans, milk, and other items at a grocery store in central Cairo. “People are terrified to death.’’

Everyday life in Cairo has been turned upside down by the largest antigovernment protests in decades in Egypt, which began last Tuesday and have surged since. Schools are closed, and businesses boarded up; the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic is now little more than a trickle; and Internet and text message services have been blocked for days.

The overriding concern for almost everyone in Cairo remains lawlessness.

“There’s no cash in the ATMs, there’s something like 5,000 prisoners roaming the streets, and there’s no security,’’ said May Sadek, a public relations agent who lives in the middle class Dokki neighborhood. There have been jail breaks from at least four prisons around Cairo in recent days.

Gangs of thugs have cleared out supermarkets, shopping malls, and stores, as well as luxury homes and apartments in affluent residential areas in the suburbs. With the police presence greatly reduced, young men have stepped in to fill the vacuum, setting up neighborhood defense committees armed with guns, clubs, and knives to protect their families and property.

Naglaa Mahmoud, 37, a homemaker, said she and her two sons spent a sleepless night Saturday at their home in the upscale Maadi neighborhood in south Cairo because of gunfire outside and the fear of looters.

“We couldn’t sleep,’’ she said. “My husband and brother went downstairs with sticks to fend off the thugs. . . . My kids finally dozed off by dawn. They were frightened by the sound of the bullets.’’

With the protests dragging on and no immediate end in sight, people are scrambling to buy basic supplies to wait things out.

At grocery stores across the city, people stocked up on food, water, and other supplies Sunday. Stores in the neighborhoods of Zamalek, Mohandiseen, and Dokki were running short of many items, especially bread and bottled water. But with banks closed and many ATMs out of cash, some are feeling pinched for cash.

Work has all but come to a standstill in the capital. Downtown, nearly all shops are closed, and windows are either boarded up or painted over. Across the Nile in Dokki, only a smattering of pharmacies, coffee shops, and eateries were open for business.

Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the focal point of the protests, looked more like a protest camp every day. Up to 1,500 demonstrators have remained overnight for the last few nights. There were a few tents in a grassy, muddy plaza in the middle of the traffic circle, one named “Pensione of Freedom.’’ Bags of food were stored near the cluster of tents while activists and a popular fast-food restaurant chain passed out free sandwiches and water.

Fears of a crackdown seemed to be fading yesterday, and the constant chanting of antigovernment slogans was accompanied by the beat of Arabic hand drums that helped create a more festive atmosphere.

But there was also frustration that they have not yet achieved the one goal that unites the men, women, young, old, poor, middle class, secular, and religious demonstrators: President Hosni Mubarak’s departure.

Despite the disruptions, fears, and frustrations, residents appear digging in across the city.

“This is the first time we’ve been in a situation like this,’’ said Yassin Gadelhak, 26, a real estate agent. “It’s not totally a question of how long we can hold out, but rather a question of how long they [Mubarak’s government] can hold out.’’

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