January 30, 2011 / 7:21 PM / 10 years ago

FEATURE-Egyptians in Suez watch canal business and fume

* Suez earned Egypt almost $5 bln in 2010

* Protesters target businesses linked to Mubarak’s party

By Alex Dziadosz

SUEZ, Egypt, Jan 30 (Reuters) - When Hossam watches ships carrying the wealth of the world pass through the Suez Canal running alongside this industrial city, it fills him with frustration.

The canal, a vital trading route since the 19th century, earned Egypt nearly $5 billion in 2010, but the 33-year-old Hossam said he and others in the city where many are unemployed or struggling on paltry pay see none of the waterway’s benefits.

In the past week, his anger — and that of thousands in Suez like him — boiled over into some of the most violent of the protests that have rocked Egypt and left President Hosni Mubarak teetering.

“The people are downtrodden,” Hossam, a security worker for a paper company who did not want to give his second name, said.

“The richest province in the country is Suez. Where is its money? Where is the canal’s revenue?”

When protests first erupted on Tuesday, the first deaths were in Suez. The protesters demanded an end to Mubarak’s 30-year grip on power which they say has concentrated wealth in the hands of his elite and left others scrabbling to get by.

“I make 400 Egyptian pounds ($68) a month,” a 35-year-old mechanic said.

“I pay 300 pounds for rent, I pay 20 pounds for electricity, I pay 15 pounds for water, I pay five pounds for gas. There’s not enough left for food and drink, let alone health care and transport.”

Residents complain of official corruption, joblessness and low wages. They are complaints heard across the country, but people in Suez are reminded everyday, as each ship floats past paying a toll, of what the government earns — and, in their eyes, pockets.

“I kill myself working all day and I get 15 or 20 pounds ($3 or $4). Give me my due,” said Gharib, a 34-year-old driver.

He was standing across the street from the burned-out skeleton of a truck belonging to Cleopatra Ceramics, a firm run by a businessman-cum-politician of Mubarak’s ruling party, Mohamed Abou El Enein. They also set fire to one of the firm’s showrooms.

VIGILANTES

Businessmen like Abou El Enein have been the targets of virulent criticism by protesters. The demonstrators claimed their first scalp on Sunday when Ahmed Ezz, a steel magnate and confidante of the president’s politician son, quit the party.

Suez has been compared to Sidi Bouzid, the town that was the epicentre of protests that inspired Egyptians. Tunisia’s president fled the country this month.

Police stations in Suez were torched and buildings looted.

But on Friday night a Reuters witness also saw a vigilante group chase down looters who had broken into a Vodafone shop and returned stolen chairs and other items to the store.

“Suez has a lot. It has the Suez Canal. It has oil companies, I see (some) young people making $10,000 dollars and we have youth working for 400, 500, 600 pounds (a month). There is a horrible class gap here,” Gharib Rabie Mukhlis said.

The 45-year-old independent was a candidate in the November parliamentary elections, which he said he lost through vote rigging.

The result, widely seen as fraudulent despite government insistence it was fair, partly fuelled the anger that drove protesters to the streets. They say the system gives them no voice and they want it changed.

“How can our government refuse to listen to the youth? That is a disaster. That is an official failure,” said Sameh Shibl, a 27-year information technology worker in Suez.

Editing by Edmund Blair and Michael Roddy

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