CAIRO Egyptians have been assured by their president that the country's battered economy will pick up in six months and they are coping "brilliantly" with austerity. But on the streets of Cairo it is hard to find people who agree.
In making his forecast last month, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged businessmen and investors to help the government rein in price rises. He also praised Egyptians for how they had dealt with tough economic reforms.
But while Egypt has floated its currency with the aim of easing a shortage of the dollars it needs to import goods, taxes have gone up, subsidies have been removed and inflation at around 20 percent is eating away at living standards, hitting the poor hardest.
Economists say prices are expected to rise again this year as a result of the government's reforms, although Sisi said people were coping well.
"The Egyptian people have succeeded brilliantly in this test," the president said.
That rings hollow with many Egyptians already struggling to get by.
Hind Adel Mohamed, a 30-year-old Cairo housewife, said her husband, a day laborer, cannot find work and rising prices mean she cannot feed her family properly.
Her response was to stage a dramatic protest near Tahrir Square, scene of the revolution that toppled president Hosni Mubarak five years ago.
Climbing to the top of a giant advertising billboard in late November, she removed light bulbs from the hoarding and threw them at the crowds below. She also threatened to jump.
"I went and took a shower at 4 a.m. that day, combed my hair and left home at 6 a.m.," she recalled in an interview with Reuters.
"I got on a bus, looking for a high place so that someone from the government would come and talk to me, and if no one showed up, I would have thrown myself off and said it's the government's fault."
In the end, she allowed herself to be rescued, but Sisi's assurance that the economy will pick up in six months does not impress her.
"We are unable to bear six hours, how could we bear six months?" she said.
LIFE IS DIFFICULT
Ahmed Attaah, a rickshaw driver, agreed, saying prices have all gone up and life has become very difficult.
"What are people going to do in the next six months, eat each other? We hope that things get better, but prices that go up never go down again," he said.
Things can also be difficult for Egyptians if they fall sick.
At a public children's hospital in Cairo, there are 16 patients in one room in the neurology department and the paint is peeling off the ceiling.
Five-year-old Mazen Ibrahim had brain surgery a few weeks ago. Since he left intensive care, his mother has struggled to find him antibiotics, epilepsy drugs and other medical supplies that the hospital cannot provide.
"I can't find medicine and even if I do, I can't afford it," said Bosaina El Sayed Moussa, the boy's mother.
She also does not see any improvement in the economy.
"How will things get better? Things are getting worse," she said. "This is just talk."
"We can't even find syringes in the hospital," she said. "We keep using the same syringe for up to two weeks ... we wash them and re-use them."
The government says measures are in hand to overcome the shortage of medicines, as called for by Sisi last week, but prices are not expected to come down soon.
"To resolve the issue, in the short-term the ministry will increase prices and overcome shortages, in the medium-term by developing state-owned pharmaceutical factories, and in the long-term by expanding the pharmaceutical industry in Egypt," Health Minister Ahmed Radi was quoted as saying by the state-run ahramonline news site.
Sisi, a former army general, came to power in 2014 promising reform and stability but his popularity is slipping as economic problems pile up and he is forced to confront persistent and deadly Islamist insurgencies.
Ahead of Jan. 25, the fifth anniversary of the protests that toppled Mubarak, activists say the main demands of "bread, freedom and social justice" have not been met.
But despite anger at austerity, Sisi does not seem to be in danger of being ousted like Mubarak and president Mohamed Mursi before him. In the face of a major security presence, big anti-austerity protests expected in November failed to materialize.
(Writing by Giles Elgood; editing by Anna Willard)