After days of looting, once-vibrant Cairo smolders

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 30, 2011 

CAIRO — Egypt's vast popular revolt has transformed this cosmopolitan capital into an urban battlefield, where the smell of smoke hangs in the air and residents walk though ransacked shopping districts in search of bread.

On Sunday, the roar of fighter jets overhead drowned out the chants of thousands of protesters, who once again defied curfew to gather downtown in hopes of toppling President Hosni Mubarak, the U.S.-allied authoritarian whose regime many Egyptians already refer to in past tense.

As Mubarak clings to his office, and the military attempt to restore order, Egyptians are taking stock of the toll so far: At least 150 dead nationwide, hundreds injured in riots, millions of dollars in property damage and a security vacuum filled by ragtag neighborhood watch groups.

Virtually the entire country — with a population of more than 80 million — remains cut off from the world, with no Internet and poor phone service.

State television announced that Mubarak's dreaded police force would return soon, but on Sunday it was still the more popular military offering any semblance of order. Army tanks rumbled through tree-lined residential areas, offering a much-needed break to exhausted families who'd stood guard all night to keep looters away.

For now, it appears the people are willing to pay this price for an end to 30 years of Mubarak's autocracy, though a worsening of the crisis could leave them more preoccupied with finding food than marching against the regime.

Here are some vignettes from Egypt in turmoil:

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An elderly bespectacled Egyptian man strolled down a street Sunday in the shopping district of Mohandiseen, with a newspaper under his arm. He stopped abruptly in front of the burned-out offices of contracting company. The man unfolded his paper and gasped — he was standing in front of the building on the front page.

The business was one of dozens targeted by looters on Shehab Street this week. A single keyboard was all that remained at a computer shop, and only a few tangled cords were left in a cell phone outlet. Robbed of their clothes, mannequins stood naked in boutique storefronts.

Children wrote their names in the fresh white paint shopkeepers were applying to their windows to conceal the wares inside. Other business owners went further, laying brick walls so that their stores disappeared from sight.

On another main street in the district, four army tanks guarded the multistory Omar Effendi department store, which is akin to a Kmart. But the military had arrived too late. Looters in pickups had carted off refrigerators, TVs, furniture and clothing.

"They took what they could get," said Abdullah Afifi, 50, the store's branch inspector. "One television didn't fit onto the truck, so they smashed it on the ground."

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Of all the antiquities at Egypt's National Museum, Ahmed Abdel Mowlah loved the King Tut collection best. He came every week for his college course on artifacts restoration and marveled at how advanced this ancient civilization was in science, law and the arts.

"The pharaohs set a foundation for us to build on, but unfortunately, we've destroyed it," Abdel Mowlah, 23, said Sunday.

Just behind him, Egyptian military tanks guarded his beloved museum, which had been damaged by looters in the unrest of the past week. "Down with Mubarak!" and other slogans were spray-painted across the museum's venerable red walls.

Antiquities officials appeared on television saying that only a rapid military response saved the world's most precious collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. Even so, two mummies were destroyed, the glass was broken on some exhibition cases, and some small statutes were missing.

When Abdel Mowlah heard that the looters had broken into the museum, he was distraught. He cursed the "backward thugs" who damaged their own national treasures.

"This is the heritage of this country, it's us, it's me," he said, his eyes wet. "I never imagined it would be attacked."

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Cairo's legendary cabarets, home to the world's best belly dancers, stood in ruins Sunday after gangs of looters struck them one by one in the lawlessness of the past few days.

"Youths came with sticks and blades, they charged at these places and everybody ran out," said Magdy Ibrahim, 42, a taxi driver who witnessed the violence. "The looters were very specific — they wanted the money and the booze."

On any given weekend, the glittery lights of the cabarets entice locals and Arab tourists to unwind to musical variety shows and the sensual undulations of professional belly dancers. The seedier cabarets along Pyramid Street were known for prostitution and drugs. But few locals complained, because they drove commercial traffic and tourist spending to their neighborhood.

On Sunday, however, all of the famous clubs — al Andalous, Paradise, Parisiana — were charred and smoky. Cleanup crews at Casino el Leil, the glitziest of all the cabarets, trudged through broken glass mixed with Stella beer cans and sequins from dancer's costumes.

The manager, a burly man with a cane, directed workers as they put up a metal gate to protect what remains of the building. He waved away questions about the demise of one of Cairo's liveliest strips.

"What is there left to say?" he asked wearily, gesturing to the smoldering debris behind him.

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Frantic shoppers walked from store to store Sunday in search of bottled water, bread, sugar and milk. Many would simply poke their heads inside supermarkets and shout "bread?" Always, the answer was "none."

Staples have disappeared from the shelves because the country's turmoil is preventing goods from reaching shops fast enough to meet the public's panicked stockpiling.

Across the city, lines of cars stretched for black as gasoline grew scarcer. To conserve fuels, some taxi drivers turned away customers headed more than a few miles away.

At one store in the Giza neighborhood of Dokki, all that remained for sale were a few packs of diapers, bars of soap and some Turkish coffee. One after another, shoppers walked in, grabbed baskets and then stood open-mouthed when they saw the empty shelves. Shaking their heads, they returned their shopping baskets and rushed off to try another street.

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