Tension in Egypt shows potency of food crisis

Officials here have good reason to be worried. In 1977, an abortive government effort to reduce the bread subsidies that are a lifeline for most Egyptians sparked widespread rioting, which led to dozens of deaths and forced the government to abandon its plans.

"People in Egypt may be considered passive or silent, but there's a limit to this. And when they reach that limit, one day there will be a popular explosion," said lawyer Esam Salam, interviewed at a cafe near Cairo's train station.

Former Pentagon official David Schenker, who lived in Cairo in the early 1990s and is with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, returned here recently for a visit and was stunned at the sour public mood.

"I was shocked," he says. "I find it very scary."

An emergence of chaos

The Egyptian government has provided heavily subsidized bread for decades as a way to guarantee social peace in a nation where the nasbaseeta, or simple folk, have little control over the larger forces that buffet their lives.

The frustrating bread lines are mostly gone, but soaring prices for other foods are adding another burden to a population already under enormous stress. More than 40% of Egypt's 80 million people live on just $2 a day — what millions of Americans spend for a cup of coffee. Almost 20% get by on daily income of just $1.

On April 6, the latest in a string of mounting protests by disaffected workers seeking higher pay to keep up with double-digit inflation boiled over into riots in the textile capital of Mahalla.

Last week, in a rare show of public dissent, a Cairo University student heckled Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif during a speech.

The simmering unrest comes amid questions over Egypt's political future. President Hosni Mubarak — in office since the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat — turns 80 on Sunday. He is grooming his son Gamal to succeed him, but in this nominally democratic nation, many Egyptians resent the notion of what they regard as a "Pharaonic" succession. Opposition groups have called for Egyptians to stage a general strike on the president's birthday.

"We believe if the situation remains as it is, there will be the emergence of chaos in this country," says Ashraf Badr El-Din, a member of parliament from the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

A worldwide threat

Bread plays a unique, almost mystical, role in Egyptian life. This is the only Arab country where people call the staple aish, or life, rather than khubz.

In the simple dusty villages far from the major cities, Egyptians developed 82 different types of bread, using corn, sorghum and barley as well as wheat, says Ahmed Khorshid, the government scientist known as the "father of bread" after a lifetime of research on the subject.

With the introduction of state subsidies in the 1960s, wheat bread became the standard. Today, Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world, placing annual orders of about 7 million tons, or roughly half its annual consumption.

Egypt's current predicament is just one facet of a global mosaic: 37 countries face a crisis over food, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.

Weak or embattled governments in some of the world's poorest nations could be pushed to the brink of anarchy or beyond by the life-or-death pressures of scarce or expensive food.

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