Egypt will need friends when the dust settles

As Egyptian protesters marshal in huge numbers, looting and potential food shortages incur a toll apart from the political dimensions.

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By now it's clear that the anger boiling over on Egypt's streets will not be tempered by force alone. Mohammed ElBaradei appears to be rallying the opposition, telling crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Sunday: "Change is coming." But the full consequences remain to be seen and last night, as authorities erected concrete barriers around the square, it was still unknown what the costs will be.

More than 100 demonstrators, mostly in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, have lost their lives, some killed by live ammunition fired by police. Throughout the Arab republic, residents are forming vigilante patrols to protect their homes in a security vacuum. Private citizens have also rallied to save the country's precious heritage, although as we report today some museums have been violated.

"The real problem now is the looting which is getting completely out of control," one Cairo resident told the BBC. In the midst of protests, many demonstrators have denounced violence, but the looting continues. There is speculation that the government has encouraged lawlessness to discredit demonstrators.

Headlines across the world have focused on the politics, but those caught in the crossfire also have other, more immediate concerns. A lack of basic security is one. Food shortages could be another.

President Hosni Mubarak appears both unwilling and unable to end this crisis, announcing a raft of new appointments and reforms that seem to have made little difference. He has also ordered a continuation of food subsidies, as 70 per cent of the population relies on government supported staples.

No matter how their demands are met - with an iron fist or capitulation - Egyptians face days, if not weeks, of upheaval. Empty cupboards and economic hardship compounded by a week of work stoppages and an absence of tourist dollars are all but certain. Economic ripples are already being felt beyond Egypt, with regional stocks plunging amid widespread investor fear.

It would be easy to forget that it was high food prices and unemployment, as well as political repression, that kicked off the calls for change in the first place. And protests continue to swell. A coalition of groups has called for one million people to take to the streets in Cairo today.

Egypt's political fate should be decided by Egyptians themselves, hopefully sooner rather than later. But the international community must be ready to assist once a resolution is reached.