In Egypt, Upper Crust Gets the Bread

Egyptians share bread at a protest in Cairo against rising prices for the staple and perceived government inaction.
Egyptians share bread at a protest in Cairo against rising prices for the staple and perceived government inaction. (By Nasser Nasser -- Associated Press)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 5, 2008

CAIRO -- The line started forming before dawn, as soon as the day's first call to prayer had faded from the trash-strewn streets of the Egyptian capital's Zelzal neighborhood. Men began pounding on the green metal shutters of the district's sole bakery.

"Aish! Aish!" -- Bread! Bread! -- the stubble-faced men yelled, shouting through the grillwork at bakers laboring over a dented, gas-fired oven. Cursing and pushing, the men thrust crumpled currency through the spaces in the grille.

"Have mercy! Have mercy on us!" a woman in a dusty black head scarf and abaya yelled.

Across Egypt this year, people have waited in line for hours at bakeries that sell government-subsidized bread, sign of a growing crisis over the primary foodstuff in the Arab world's most populous country. President Hosni Mubarak has ordered Egypt's army to bake bread for the public, following the deaths of at least six people since March 17 -- some succumbing to exhaustion during the long waits, others stabbed in vicious struggles for places in line.

Economists and analysts say the crisis exposes the government's inability to fulfill the decades-old pact between ruler and ruled here: As long as the country's authoritarian system has supplied cheap bread, its people have put up with the squelching of political rights and economic opportunity. For Egypt's more than 30 million poor, subsidized bread means survival.

In Zelzal, a grid of raw concrete tenements built by the government for people displaced by a 1992 earthquake, Hikmat Mustafa Ibrahim, a 62-year-old widow, emerged from the crush of men, women and children besieging the bakery. After a 3 1/2 -hour wait, Ibrahim had 30 round pockets of bread, about 25 cents' worth. It would form the bulk of the day's food for her family of six. Ibrahim sat down hard on a flat stone. "Finally!" she gasped.

"We will take to the streets in demonstrations. Or else we will steal," 30-year-old Hanan Sadek had said the day before as she stood in line outside the Zelzal bakery. Sadek's husband receives a $55 monthly salary, of which $45 goes to the rent. "If you have four children, really, you can't eat," Sadek said.

In 1977, a government move to lift the subsidies on bread sparked the only mass popular uprising in Egypt in the past half-century, including fiery street protests that left more than 70 people dead. Anwar Sadat, who was president at the time, quickly restored the subsidies.

Some Egyptian newspapers and ruling party politicians have urged Mubarak to respond to the bread crisis by replacing the current prime minister with a military official. "The mood of the people is angry," said Amr Elshobaki, an analyst at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "I think it's near collapse, the state."

One of the causes of the crisis is beyond the government's control. Wheat prices worldwide have more than doubled in the past year, spurred by increased demand, rising fuel costs and bad weather. Globally, food prices climbed by nearly one-fourth between 2006 and 2007, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Egypt is the world's second-largest importer of wheat.

As costs of cooking oil and all other non-subsidized food products rise, millions of Egyptians have come to depend even more on bread. But the rising prices have also made the black-market resale of subsidized bread and flour more lucrative, reducing the supply for the poor, said Ahmed El-Naggar, an economist at the Al-Ahram Center who has advised the government on the bread crisis.

The subsidized price of a 110-pound sack of flour has been less than $3 for years; the market price reached $45 early this year and has fallen to $36 since the government intervened.

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