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April 28, 2008

The Egyptian Bread Crisis—أزمة الخبز المصرية

Filed under: Masr —مصر — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 5:13 pm

This article was commissioned for Is Greater Than

Speakers of Egyptian colloquial Arabic use the same word, عيش (‘aish), for both “bread” and “life”. Indeed, bread represents on average around 50–60% of Egyptians’ caloric intake and is the perennial complement to every meal. Cairo streets in the mornings are awash in the stuff, with the smell of bread wafting out of bakeries and mingling with the ever-present car exhaust, men and boys criss-crossing through traffic on bikes, balancing as many as a hundred of the flat loaves in wooden racks on their heads, vendors distributing the loaves from special racks on their backs or on blankets or sheets of plastic on street corners, carts and hole-in-the-wall shops doling out small sandwiches filled with فول (fuul, cooked fava beans) and تعمية (ta’maya, an Egyptian variation on falafel).

And in most places, you’ll find a loaf of unsubsidized بلدي (baladi, or country) bread for 30 to 60 piasters (currently between about a US nickel and a US dime). The price of this bread, like the price of every single food commodity in the country, with the exception of the famous 5-piaster subsidized baladi loaf, has risen dramatically in the last several years and in the past few months in particular. But the price of that subsidized bread has remained the same for almost 20 years, making it the most popular source of nutrition in a country where around 40% of the population lives on less than $2 per day. And the state-subsidized baladi loaf is becoming increasingly popular as more people become less able to afford unsubsidized foods.

But around this stable little loaf (which has gotten littler of late) swirls a maelstrom worthy of all manner of meteorological, maritime, epidemiological and tectonic metaphors: a “perfect storm” of economic and environmental woes, “waves” of tension and discontent, “outbreaks” of food riots and a “groundswell” of popular protest. The predominance of such agent-less metaphors is due in part to the reluctance of journalists to assign blame for social ills and of commentators to speak precisely, but also because of the difficulty of tracing all the myriad forces that have contributed to what is most often called “the bread crisis” in Egypt.

In the international press, the situation in Egypt has most recently been reported in the context of “food riots” in the countries of Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, Indonesia, Yemen, Morocco, Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, Uzbekistan and the Philippines. This list, or some subset of it, is enumerated, often in alphabetical order, in order to universalize the problem. There are some very global dynamics at play, but I want to focus on Egypt as a particular case, partly because I live there and partly because even a lengthy four-part series in Is Greater Than wouldn’t be enough to usefully examine the situation across all these different contexts.

So what is this Egyptian “bread crisis?” Even this is not easy to pin down in a country where the colloquial translation could as easily mean “crisis of life.” But, to start off with, what eventually brought the “problem” to the level of a “crisis” was the death by exhaustion of customers waiting in line at subsidized bakeries, and then more deaths, and then stabbings in the line, and most recently shots fired at a subsidized bakery in Alexandria (hardly one of the more “restive” parts of the country). Various parties with different agendas downplay or exaggerate the number of deaths as suits them. On the one hand, Ali Meselhi, Egypt’s Minister of Social Solidarity, blames several incidents on long-standing family feuds that just happened to play out in the tense environment of bread lines. On the other hand, opposition parties count among the casualties one man, Mohamed Fathi Mahmoud, who committed suicide by eating a loaf of bread stuffed with pesticides in the face of exorbitant medical treatments for his wife and an income as a fruit seller insufficient to keep his daughter in school or cover his mounting debts and the rising cost of living (by the government’s own estimates—frequently criticized for being overly optimistic—food costs rose by over 38% between March 2007 and March 2008).

Whatever the numbers, nobody but the most stalwart defender of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) will deny the existence of a crisis. And yet the government continues to speak out of both sides of its mouth. On one side, it denies that it can do anything about an essentially global phenomenon (the UN World Food Program calls it a “silent tsunami”, ably mixing both tectonic and maritime metaphors and adding an eery silence for effect). And at the same time it assumes responsibility by sending in the military to take over subsidized bread production and distribution. In fact, most NDP members do acknowledge some government responsibility, and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif on the 23rd of March promised an end to the crisis in the bread lines within 6 weeks. The independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm is holding Nazif’s feet to the fire with a daily countdown, usually published above the fold on the front page. As that deadline approaches, the debate over what exactly the crisis is and whether or not it has been resolved is likely to escalate.

Countdown on front page of AlMasry AlYoum, reading “Doctor Ahmed Nazif: ‘bread line crisis’ will end in 6 weeks—23 March, 2008”

Indeed, each attempt to answer the question, “What is the bread crisis?” begs several more questions. The crisis, most simply, is the death of at least 12 people in lines at subsidized bakeries. But why are the lines so dangerous? Because there is a shortage of subsidized bread and customers often have to wait beginning as early as the pre-dawn call to prayer and may still not be able to get bread for their family before they have to go to work. Many bakeries will be closed or out of bread by the time they return from work. Keep in mind, this is the most basic food for an enormous and growing proportion of the Egyptian population, so its scarcity will naturally result in some tension in the line. Additionally, each individual is only allowed 20 loaves of subsidized baladi bread (or £E1.00—one Egyptian Pound’s worth) per day. Unlike the other three subsidized foods (wheat flour, sugar and cooking oil), anyone willing to endure the wait and social stigma can buy subsidized bread without a ration card, so the government limits individual quotas to ensure an adequate supply.

So why is the government unable to maintain adequate supply? Here things get quite a bit more complicated. The government, and many of the customers themselves, have for the most part focused on the problem of “leakage” of subsidized flour onto the black market. The government sells subsidized flour to licensed private bakeries for £E18 for a 100kg sack. A government inspector whose basic salary is at or below the poverty line will check to make sure that the similarly-impoverished bakery owner is not putting any of those sacks of flour directly onto another truck whose driver offers to pay him £E200 or more for each sack of flour. The inspector will also check that the figures in the baker’s log of accounts add up to make sure that the baker is not selling subsidized bread in bulk to profiteers or selling underweight loaves. Any violations can result in the revocation of the baker’s government license. With so little financial incentive to resort to smuggling and bribery (a mere 1111% profit on each sack of flour), the whole system is clearly on the up-and-up.

Still, the government, to preserve even a shred of its legitimacy, is obliged to respond to the accusations of opposition newspapers and of customers who threaten the bakery owners with murder. Additionally, the current bread crisis—in combination with a strike wave that culminated in mass protest and running battles with police in the bellwether industrial city of Mahalla Al-Kubra on April 6-8—has stoked fears of a repeat of the “bread intifada” of 1977. This event, sparked by the government’s cancellation of all subsidies in January of that year, resulted in over 70 deaths and a great deal of property damage, particularly 5-star hotels and private automobiles. This is the great “or else” that hangs over the government’s head, spurring it to action.

A rack of baladi bread with a fading political poster in the background

So, in the middle of March, President Hosni Mubarak ordered various and sundry ministries to separate production of subsidized bread from its distribution by taking over the distribution from the bakeries. Thousands of uniformed security forces in troop transport vehicles then made sure that exactly 1000 loaves were turned over for every 100kg of flour, with a proper accounting of all “defective” loaves, and distributed them to Egypt’s needy citizens. Unfortunately, this created some other problems as people didn’t know where to find the distribution trucks, and whatever system regular customers had established in the queues to avoid conflicts was rendered ineffective.

President Mubarak ordered a solution to the crisis and handed responsibility to the Governors of Egypt to solve the crisis in whatever way they felt was appropriate in their governorates. For his part, Abdel Azim Wazir, the Governor of Cairo brought in a number of agricultural engineers and hired them as inspectors, giving them bonuses. Since then, hundreds of tons of subsidized flour have been seized in warehouses and unsubsidized bakeries and many more tons of subsidized bread have been seized en route to the wealthier districts of Cairo and the Mediterranean coast.

The government, as a result, looks on track to fix the problem because “it is not, in principle, unfixable,” according to Joel Beinin, Director of Middle East Studies at the America University in Cairo.

It is not unfixable, even if their way of fixing it is only at the level of addressing the symptom—the selling of the flour on the black market—if they mobilize the State’s resources to do it. They have enough of a repressive and supervisory apparatus to crack down on that. Probably up to a certain point, they were turning a blind eye because since they’re not paying their employees adequately, why not let them take some bribes?”

But, as Dr. Beinin points out, the bread crisis and its most obvious and immediate cause is symptomatic of much deeper problems. Broadly speaking, those problems can be summarized as inflation in global commodity prices. To cut through the jargon a bit, I mean to say that stuff that actually exists, that people use regularly for their daily needs, is getting more expensive. This is to say, things like grains, staple foods, petroleum, metals, etc. These “things that actually exist” have recently become the refuge of financial speculators who have been burned by “derivatives” and “structured investment vehicles” and other fantastical “financial instruments” in the wake of the US mortgage market “meltdown” (interesting that food riots and commodity inflation are natural disasters while the collapse of the housing market is cast as a very man-made disaster). This speculation, in combination with a host of other global forces, has resulted in an increase of 181% in the price of wheat on the global market over the last three years. Here are some of the other factors:

  • the diversion of grains away from food mills and toward ethanol distilleries
  • “increased protein demand,” as economists are prone to put it, especially in places like India and China (they mean “people are eating more meat”)
  • crop failures in major wheat producing regions
  • hoarding of grain harvests by speculators and producing countries
  • agricultural subsidies in developed countries

In the next two installments, I plan on addressing these other causes of the Egyptian bread crisis, to trace the effect of that proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing on a Hurricane in Florida. But this isn’t chaos theory; the sources of the problem and its human actors are not so obscure and I will discuss these in my next piece. And neither are those human actors divorced from nature, the environment, and the climate—the third installment of the series will focus on this aspect of the issue. Finally, in the fourth installment, I’ll be focusing on the reactions of Egyptians to the bread crisis and the popular movements it has helped to galvanize.


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