Egypt: Alexandria reels after chaos

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ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — As violence continues to rock the nation’s capital in the run-up to the highly anticipated demonstrations scheduled for Friday, Egypt’s second-largest city reels from over a week of chaos.

Prices of everything from bread to transportation have skyrocketed, salaries have not been paid and people are exhausted from policing their own streets night after night. In the past five days, the cost of making a phone call has nearly doubled. Bread is 10 times what it cost last week.

“I cannot tell you how we feel about the future,” said Khaled Fouad, a cardiothoracic surgeon, as he drank tea in his building’s lobby late Wednesday night. On a break from his all-night shift guarding the neighborhood, he carried a club with a kitchen knife taped to the end. In his pocket, he had what looked like a real pistol. It was a cigarette lighter. “I used to be a doctor,” he said.

Outside on the street, about 15 young men armed with clubs, knives and blocks of wood searched cars and examined drivers' identification papers before letting cars pass.

Alexandrians say without a government, their former lives have come to a halt. Businesses are closed, people are not going to work and many fear it won’t be long before supplies of food, fuel and cash dry up.

After all the police stations burned down late last week, the only items that can be found cheap these days are weapons. A new black market has sprung up and Fouad said he intends to stock up, just in case. The army, he said, is now occupied with internal strife. As an Egyptian, he wants to be ready to defend his country.

“This country was very safe,” he said. “You could go out any time.”

In the markets today, men and women stood in long lines carrying large rusty tins, waiting to fill them with cooking gas. The ports were closed and no one knows when they will be able to go back to work.

Even activists who have been on the streets day and night for 10 straight days were largely quiet on Thursday in Alexandria. At 4 p.m. — the beginning of the government-mandated curfew — the streets quickly emptied as military and civilian checkpoints were erected.

One activist, 29-year-old Marwa, was afraid to be seen in public since pro-Mubarak demonstrators joined the fray yesterday. In Cairo, five people were killed and 800 people were injured in clashes between the pro- and anti-Mubarak supporters.

Counter-demonstrators also joined Alexandria’s protests last night noticeably raising tensions across the city. At least one fight broke out near the city’s largest train station. Locals say it is no longer safe to attend protests.

“You don’t know what is going to happen,” said Marwa. Normally unveiled, she wore a black hijjab to prevent drawing the attention of police or pro-Mubarak demonstrators.

Marwa said she has been an activist for years, and she never expected Mubarak to go down without a fight, despite the energy and enthusiasm that swept the nation last week. For 10 days, in cities across the country, demonstrators have gathered round the clock demanding Mubarak step down in largely peaceful protests.

“He wants to sit in his chair until he dies,” Marwa said before ducking out of the car and into a small crowd of shoppers hurrying to get home before dark.

Other Alexandrians, who initially supported the protests, say they were convinced by the president’s Tuesday speech. Mubarak promised to reform laws that cripple opposition parties, impose term limits on future presidents, fight corruption and to retire at the end of his current term this year.

“I will work in the remaining months of my term to take the steps to ensure peaceful transfer of power,” he said.

In Alexandria on Thursday, anti-government activists stood down, and pro-government rallies ruled the streets. Locals carried signs that said, “We Love You Mubarak,” or just, “Yes Mubarak.”

Some say the new wave of activists are government agents, sent to terrify demonstrators, discredit the uprising and isolate the activists. Others say they are men with business interests in the Mubarak regime.

What is not in dispute is the pro-Mubarak demonstrators' apparently universal intolerance for Western journalists. In the past 24 hours reporters have been beaten, harassed and arrested.

But anti-Mubarak demonstrators have vowed not to stop fighting until the president leaves the country and they continue to battle in Tahrir Square. Alexandrian activists that support the uprising are expected to join tomorrow’s protest which organizers have called “Departure Friday.”

Organizers hope the event will draw 10 million people to the presidential palace in an effort to force Mubarak to leave the country. And while many fear the day will bring more violence, activists say it is worth the price of freedom.

Mohammad, an activist who has been protesting day and night for the past 10 days, said tomorrow could be a defining moment in Egypt’s history or a day of violence, leaving the people beaten and afraid. “We will never give up,” he added. “Never.”

More about the unrest in the Middle East:

The altered aura of the Arab state Everything you need to know Israel nervous as Mubarak teeters