Tension in Egypt shows potency of food crisis

Well before 8 o'clock on a late April morning, a line of about 30 eager customers forms at a modest bakery in this working-class neighborhood. With a global food crisis roiling countries from Asia to the edge of Europe, at least 11 people have been killed recently in such lines here, struggling to get their daily bread.

But today, the queue melts away within moments. Veiled women and men in worn shirts approach a small wooden shack at the end of a narrow alley, hand over the equivalent of a few cents and leave holding a plastic bag filled with nine flat loaves of bread. Over the next half-hour, until the bakery runs out of its only product, the line waxes and wanes.

There's no panic, no desperate scrambling for sustenance — a tentative sign of success for an emergency government plan that involves dramatic increases in spending on bread subsidies and the use of Egyptian soldiers as bakers.

"Now we're able to find bread," says Dalia Hafez, 40, seated on a nearby curb in a cappuccino-colored headscarf. "Thanks God, the crisis is over."

For now, anyway. But the aftershocks from the food trauma here are only beginning to be felt. Tensions are continuing to build in this key U.S. ally, evidence that the global food crisis — the product of factors ranging from unusual weather in producing nations to increased competition for grains from biofuels programs — is now about much more than food.

"This crisis threatens not only the hungry, but also peace and stability," the head of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), Josette Sheeran, warned in a recent speech.

That's certainly true in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, recipient of $1.8 billion in annual U.S. foreign aid and a critical link in global trade sitting astride the Suez Canal. Its authoritarian government is faced with mounting labor unrest, profound public dissatisfaction over a yawning gap between rich and poor and questions over who will lead Egypt in the coming years.

In this deeply unsettled atmosphere, images of Egyptians scrapping for subsidized balady (bal-a-DEE) bread have left the government on edge. Proof of just how sensitive the issue remains could be seen in the response of Egyptian state security to a USA TODAY correspondent's visit to a second bakery later that April morning.

As the reporter and his translator left the bakery in the Rod El Faroq neighborhood, they were blocked by a plainclothes security officer. The man demanded the memory card from the reporter's camera, saying the images it contained — of men baking bread — posed "a threat to Egypt's national security."

The reporter and his translator were surrounded by at least seven policemen in white uniforms. Some threatened the bakery owner with prison for speaking with a foreign journalist.

The journalists were detained for five hours. Egyptian officials said no pictures could be taken in their country without advance government approval. The camera's memory card was returned, damaged.

That Egyptian officials regard photos of bakers at work as potentially incendiary is a measure both of bread's unrivaled importance in the Egyptian diet and of the government's concern that continued public discontent over food supplies could metastasize into something more threatening.

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