Egypt, a desperate nation now running on empty

'We are humiliated in our own country - there is no dignity. You go to bed, and the next day prices are higher, higher, always higher.'

epa02558728 Eyptians buy food at a shop as protests continue in Cairo, Egypt, 31 January 2011. Protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak continued during the whole day and night despite the imposed curfew. The army has not intervened in the protests and only guards the sites and buildings that are of national interest.  EPA/AHMED KHALED *** Local Caption ***  02558728.jpg
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CAIRO // The grievances of Ghada Youssef, a divorced mother-of-two, are no different from those of the tens of thousands of Egyptians who have taken to the streets in protest.

The 36-year-old English teacher describes her day as a relentless toil that ends with minimal pay and maximum exhaustion. And while her wages stagnate, the cost of feeding her family seems only to rise.

"You go to bed, and the next day prices are higher, higher, always higher," Ms Youssef said. "We work and we work and we work, every day doing our best. But in the end, we are humiliated in our own country. There is no dignity here."

The runaway food-price inflation that helped to spark the unrest shows no signs of going away. A kilo of aubergine has nearly doubled in price. The shelves of supermarkets are running bare, and Cairenes throng the capital's shops and markets buying up remaining supplies of food.

With work suspended, banks closed and calls for a general strike, shopkeepers fear their customers might no longer be able to afford their goods. "People are running out of money," said Ahmed Said, an employee of a small fruit and vegetable market near Sayyida Zeinab. "There's fear that if the protests continue, people won't have enough money and our food will rot."

Petrol stations are congested with long queues of motorists waiting to refill their vehicles before the 3pm curfew begins.

Yet Ms Youssef seems undaunted. Instead, she said, she has found a renewed sense of hope in the protests that have destabilised her country, for out of the looting and chaos may come liberation.

"There is a feeling that I, we, have regained our freedom. I'm seeing a better life for my children," she said.

"Really, if Mr Mubarak doesn't go, then the hand of Allah will surely force him out," she said.

Many seem to share this sentiment. Yesterday afternoon thousands began descending again on Tahrir Square to defy the curfew and to call once again for Mr Murbarak's removal.

For a second day, the Egyptian military encircled the area, with tanks and fatigue-clad soldiers controlling - but still not opposing - the protesters.

The gripping fear of Mr Mubarak's secret police has eased and for now the mood seems to be one of uneasy trust between demonstrators and a military whose loyalty remains a mystery.

Last Friday Ms Youssef saw the old Egypt when she decided to take her children for a walk in Tahrir Square. They were stung by teargas, saw crowds dispersed by gunfire, and felt the backlash of what many here hope was the last gasp of Mr Mubarak's once powerful security apparatus.

While putting their lives at risk, Ms Youssef said, her 11-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son had to experience, first-hand, such defiance by everyday Egyptians.

"Even before we made it to the Tahrir, we saw police shooting gas at people praying in the streets and in the mosques," she said. "But my children must feel - they must know - they have rights as human beings."

Her children also had to see that Egyptians could control their own destiny, she said. They had to see that they did not have to be slaves to a system that has constantly made her fret over utility bills and scrounging enough income to feed her children. "You know, I worked from eight in the morning until the afternoon, and then I would tutor, sometimes until nine or 10 at night," she said. "And still, I would make, maybe 2,000 pounds a month. That is not enough. That is not right. When I went to the supermarket to buy milk, bread, the basics, I'd spend no less than 100 pounds. Sometimes, 200 pounds."

Not far from her apartment near Qasr al Ayni Street, signs that chaos could break out anew abounded. Sporadic cases of theft were met by neighbourhood vigilantes making citizens' arrests with clubs and knives in hand.

But in this, Ms Youssef said she saw hope.

"When I leave my house and walk on the streets, it feels for the first time in my life that these streets are mine," she said. "It feels like this country belongs to me."