Sugar, 7 cents a pound. Rice, 3 1/2 cents a pound. A loaf of coarse bread, less than a penny. A yard of cotton broadcloth shirting, 26 cents. Boneless Uruguayan beef, 45 cents a pound.
Those prices are not a nostalgic recollection of the Great Depression, but the actual controlled prices of these goods in Egyptian markets today - the result of a vast and complex sysem of state subsidies that is at the heart of the county's current economic crisis.
It cost the government about $1.2 billion in cash and hundreds of millions more indirect subsidies last year to maintain those price levels.
Imported good are sold in state-run grocery and department stores at a fraction of their actual cost, and goods produced by Egypt's own stat-run industries - such as gasoline, soap and textiles - are sold at such artificially low prices that these state industries lost more than $1.37 billion last year.
Egypt, with a gross national product of only about $11 billion a year, does not have the money to continue the subsidy system and is under pressure from international lenders and aid donors to curtail it. Because the country's 38 million people earn, on the average, well under $300 a year, any attempt to cut the subsidies and raise prices is, however political dynamite - as the government found out earlier this month, when Egypt's worst riots in a quarter-century were sparked by such an attempt.
The subsidy system "represents a waste in the employment of economic resources that should be directed to economic development or basic public services such as health and education," said Finance Minister Salah Hamed in presenting the proposed 1977 state budget to the people's Assembly. That budget provided for cuts of $526.3 million in the subsidy appropriations - but the cuts were canceled when the riots broke out.
Egyptian officials say the subsidy system was created in the 1960s after the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized Egyptian industries and sought to improve the standard of living.
Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser in 1970, said in a recent interview that it was assumed in those days that increased productivity of Egyptian industries would generate enough revenue to maintain the welfare state system Nasser installed.
But the country's population boom outstripped the expansion of an economy hampered by war and mismanagement, and the initially modest subsidy system ballooned into a monster that government officials admit has been widely abused.
"We started to review the thing in 1975," an informed officials of the Ministry of Economy said, "when we realized that the fancy cake sold at the Hilton Hotel to rich tourists was made with subsidized flour, subsidized sugar and subsidized shortening."
Any Egyptian citizen or resident foreigner, no matter how wealthy is entitled to buy the subsidized goods. The effect of this, according to Finance Minister Hamed, has been to allow some persons to enrich themselves at the expense of the state, using the cheap bread for animal fodder, subsidized corn for poultry feed, subsidized textiles for fancy clothes.
In an effort to cut its costs and to halt the siphoning off of subsidized commodities for resale in private grocery stores, the government imposed rationing on subsidized tea, cooking oil meat, sugar and price.
Each household has a ration book that permits the purchase of, for example, 2.2 pounds of subsidized rice per person per month. Those who have the money are free to buy more on the open market.
There are usually no limits on other subsidized goods, however. The list includes cooking gas, baby formula, imported soap, sesame oil, beans and animal fats.
Most Egyptians buy thest goods at state-run neighborhood grocery stores called Gaameyas. There are hundreds of these in Egypt's cities and towns, and long lines form outside them before they open each morning.
These stores sell at discount prices the commodities imported from abroad and distributed by the Ministry of Supply. They also sell local produce, on which they theoretically are able to hold down the prices by buying in bulk and eliminating the profit motive. And they sell the soaps, canned goods and cereals produced by Egyptian factories.
Egypt also has private groceries that provide better service and a wider range of goods at higher price. According to experienced analysts, this results in vast abuses of the gaameya system, increasing the state's costs far beyond what they should be.
For example, Egyptians and foreign experts say it is common for workers in the Supply Ministry and in the gammeyas to steal merchanise for resale on the private market - a practice so well-known it is depicted in a currently popular movie.
Merchants buy at the gaameyas and resell, at a higher price, to their favorite customers, thus further disrupting the supply lvels at the state stores.
Furthermore, because Egyptian farms have remained in private hands, the farmers tend to sell their produce to the highest bidder - which in practice means the private shops, since gaameya managers are under pressure to hold down their costs. As a result the gaameyas are left with short supplies or poor quality goods or both.
There is also corruption in the gaameyas themselves.
Each person is allowed to purchase 2.2 pounds of subsidized imported meat every two weeks. All meat in the gaameyas, regardless of cut, is the same price. The butcher, according to gaameya managers, is supposed to give each customer a mixture of quality meat and less desirable parts, but in practice often favrs customers who slip him a few cents extra.