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Upheaval drains life from Egypt businesses

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 10:33 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Shop keepers wait for tourists to pass in the streets of the Khan al Khalili, a medieval bazaar in Cairo dating back to the 14th century. Prior to Egypt's revolution, the Khan, which plays an important role in the lives of thousands of locals, was filled with tourists. Today, the streets are nearly empty, leaving many to worry about their futures. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Ohan Yazejian, a jeweler at a family-owned store in the Khan al Khalili sits behind his counter where his display cases sit empty because of a lack of security and the current political unrest in Cairo. Yazejian, like many others in the medieval bazaar that dates back to the 14th century, are worried about the significant declines in business. 'Tourism is nothing. A big zero, for two years now,' he says. At least 20% of the silver and gold workshops in the market have closed, says Yazejian. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A man waits for customers in the Khan al Khalili, a medieval bazaar in Cairo dating back to the 14th century. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A woman sits as peddlers pass by selling scarfs at the El Fishawy, a famous coffee shop that boasts being open everyday for 200 consecutive years, in the Khan al Khalili, a medieval bazaar in Cairo that dates back to the 14th century. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Atif Eid, 36, (left) a waiter at the El Fishawy coffee shop, waits for customers in an empty booth at the famous coffee shop in the Khan al Khalili, a medieval bazaar in Cairo that dates back to the 14th century. With all the political unrest, he says, 'people worry about going out.' Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Egyptian artwork and ankhs sit on a shelf for sale in the Khan al Khalili bazaar in Cairo. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Dresses hang from a building in Cairo's Khan al Khalili bazaar. With continued political unrest, the number of tourists visiting Egypt is declining greatly and vendors in popular shopping destination are facing difficult economic times. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A shopkeeper wait for costumers at the Khan al Khalili bazaar in Cairo. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A man sells cotton candy at the Khan al Khalili, a medieval bazaar in Cairo dating back to the 14th century. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A shopkeeper stands in one of the streets of the Khan al Khalili, a medieval bazaar in Cairo dating back to the 14th century. The small streets, once filled with tourists, are now nearly empty, leaving workers to fear for their futures. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
The once crowded seats of restaurants and cafes in the Khan al Khalili, a medieval bazaar in Cairo dating back to the 14th century, now sit nearly empty. The number of tourists visiting the market has declined as upheaval has gripped the Arab nation. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Egyptian souvenirs sit for sale at a shop in the Khan al Khalili, a medieval bazaar in Cairo dating back to the 14th century. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Antiques sit for sale in a shop in the Khan al Khalili, a medieval bazaar in Cairo that dates back to the 14th century. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A man sits by his stand in the Khan al Khalili, a medieval bazaar in Cairo that dates back to the 14th century. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Young boys work in a small store in the Khan al Khalili, a medieval bazaar in Cairo that dates back to the 14th century. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review

CAIRO — In the medieval bazaar known as Khan al Khalili, Egyptian shopkeepers call to the few foreigners winding through narrow streets and tables of faux Pharaonic trinkets and intricate glass perfume bottles.

At the Mirhan & Garbis Yazejian family jewelry store, the window display is barren. So are the shelves inside.

“For security reasons, we don't have anything on display right now,” explained jeweler Ohan Yazejian. “Tourism is nothing. A big zero for two years now.”

After two years of political upheaval, those who earn their livelihoods from tourism — once Egypt's third-largest industry — are struggling.

Street fighting near two posh hotels downtown left tourists choking on tear gas last week. Unknown gunmen shot up the lobby of the Semiramis Intercontinental; guests barricaded themselves in their rooms before fleeing.

More than 50 people have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded during protests against President Mohamed Morsy in the past 10 days; a mob attacked the presidential palace with rocks and Molotov cocktails on Friday.

Three Suez Canal cities remain under military-enforced curfews as a result of bloody confrontations.

“We get some tourists now and then, mostly Chinese tourists — they just try and sell things,” Yazejian said. “At least 20 percent of the silver and gold workshops have closed. Others now work in copper because it is cheaper.”

After the 2011 revolution that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, lawlessness erupted as police withdrew; looters robbed shops in “the Khan,” as it is known to locals.

Now when unrest starts, vendors remove their most valuable displays.

“It's very bad now,” said Ibrahim al Alam, 52, general manager of the Babany Tourism shop. “There are no tourists, and we are in the high tourist season. … There has to be stability. If there is no stability, there are no tourists.”

He said, “2011 was better than 2012, and this year I don't see any business here. Every year is worse than the next.”

As two foreign journalists walk into the bazaar, one desperate shopkeeper calls out to his fellow merchants: “Look, there are tourists!”

Yazejian, the jeweler, said he believes calm will return “if the political powers just sit together and try and solve this. Or the Muslim Brotherhood just goes away.

“They won't go away, though,” he adds ruefully. “They won't leave like Mubarak did, in 18 days. And if people try and make them, there will be a lot of blood. It will lead to a civil war, and nobody wants that.

“I think if things get too bad, the army will step in.”

Such fear is widespread. Egyptian Defense minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said last week that Egypt is at risk of collapse if political unrest continues.

In the heart of the Khan, El Fishawy café first opened in 1710 and boasts of being continuously open for more than 200 years. For the past 13 years, owner Atif Eid has served tea and shisha — water pipes with flavored tobacco — to customers.

Now, said Eid, 36, “people worry about going out. Tourists, no — we have very little. Today I had four or five from Spain, but the rest of my customers are all Egyptians.

“We don't know who is right and who is wrong,” he said, discussing Friday's mayhem at the presidential palace. “But this regime doesn't know anything. (President) Morsy doesn't have any political solutions.”

With so many political, economic and social problems plaguing Egypt, “it's a pity for the Brotherhood. They had a chance to do something, and they let it go just like this,” Yazejian said, snapping his fingers. “It's a pity for the country — Egypt doesn't deserve this.”

The jeweler said he voted against Morsy in June's presidential election and in December against a controversial constitution that opponents say was manipulated by Islamists.

Now, Yazejian said, he hopes the opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front, will do the political groundwork needed to win upcoming parliamentary elections.

Otherwise, he said, Islamists will win a majority in the lower house, completing their control of government, and “it will be finished for us.”

“I want them to concentrate on the elections, win it and then start changing things,” he said.

Betsy Hiel is the foreign correspondent for Trib Total Media. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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