Cracking Heads, Distributing Bread

Cracking Heads, Distributing Bread

On April 6 and 7, the ordinary citizens of Mahalla took to the streets. After hired thugs threw stones at them, the protesters clashed with police, destroyed shops, schools, and government buildings. They cheered as they toppled a giant image of President Hosni Mubarak. At least two people were killed when police used rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons to disperse the crowd. Some witnesses said the police used live ammunition.

The riots followed marginally successful calls for a general strike and months of escalating unrest over inflation, especially in the price of bread and other basic foodstuffs. Bread prices rose by almost 50 percent last year, driving more Egyptians into ever-longer breadlines at government-subsidized bakeries. Fatal violence erupted in some of the breadlines, and the president ordered the army to begin baking bread.

In the days after the strike, as the country’s security apparatus arrested young girls who had publicized the strike on Facebook and hundreds of protesters detained in Mahalla dropped off the face of the Earth, the question on everyone’s mind was, “How serious is this? What next?”

Word from Washington is that some neocon fantasists there see the germs of a democratic Facebook & Twitter Revolution in this month’s events, a view perhaps informed by Michael Slackman’s odd take on the strike (New York Times, April 7) and perhaps reflected in Jackson Diehl’s piece for the Washington Post yesterday.

Word from London is that many of the posh boys at the Foreign Ministry are shrugging off the strike as an irresponsible provocation from the Left.

I suspect the truth is somewhere in between. The streets were quiet on Sunday, April 6. Many stayed home in solidarity with the strike. But many more stayed home because it was a Sunday, there was a miserable sandstorm blowing, and because they were scared by the Interior Ministry’s warnings that it wasn’t going to fuck around. Following those warnings, some schools closed out of fear for the students’ safety, and apolitical friends of mine warned me not to go downtown. The Interior Ministry probably did more to keep people off the streets than Facebook did.

Calls for a second strike on May 4, President Mubarak’s 80th birthday, are intended, and will be received, as a provocation. But to dismiss what happened in Egypt on April 6-7 as a provocation from the Left is to dangerously ignore real grievances and the fundamental differences between what happened in Mahalla a few weeks ago and the street politics of the past few years.

While Mahalla has a long history of labor activism (it is, after all, a mill town), I haven’t seen any evidence that the riots were organized by the Left. The workers of Mahalla have tried to distance themselves from the protests, and judging from what I saw on YouTube, the uprising looked pretty spontaneous and “organic” to me.

These weren’t intellectuals, students, full-time activists, or committed members of a political group on the streets; these were ordinary young people, apparently motivated by frustration and desperation. It’s something you don’t see very often in Egypt. The last time I can remember seeing ordinary people protesting in the streets was in Arish last year. There too, protesters tore down posters of Mubarak and torched the local offices of the ruling National Democratic Party. But that unrest was sparked by a local dispute with an easy security solution, and passed as a flash in the pan.

The Mahalla unrest was apparently sparked by more fundamental problems. The government cannot order world grain prices down, and thousands of riot police cannot increase wages.

If it’s dangerous to dismiss what’s happened in Egypt as mere agitating on the part of a few left-wing activists, it’s equally dangerous to imagine that Facebook and Twitter are going to usher in a Gucci Revolution in Egypt. Food shortages and breadlines might, but the people who depend on government bakeries to survive don’t have Facebook accounts, they have never heard of Twitter, and if they take to the streets, they’re not going to be wearing tube tops with cute little Egyptian eagles painted on their boobs. They’re going to be carrying Molotov cocktails and bricks.

To paraphrase one of my favorite MCs, “they’re not going to be looking to escape the plantation. They’re going to want to come back, free all their people, hang the motherfucker who kept them there, and burn his house to the goddamn ground.” (This track would be the better hip-hop reference, granted.)

New Facebook groups have popped up ahead of the planned May 4 strike. One, titled “Mubarak died,” is the Facebook sister to a catchy, Bob-Dylan-and-Sheikh-Imam-inflected song by the same name.

Jackson Diehl asks if “those hungry for bread will join those famished for democracy” on May 4. The answer is probably, “No. Not if the cops crack their heads or if they’re not hungry for bread.”

On the cracking of heads: The Interior Ministry has repeatedly shown itself to be quite willing to crack heads over far less serious threats than calls for a general strike in the midst of a bread crisis. Student elections or a few young people chanting by the Press Syndicate will do.

When things get really serious, as they did when a Cairo slum declared itself “the Islamic Republic of Imbaba” in the early 1990s, the government’s response can get very serious indeed. Former Interior Minister Abd al-Halim Moussa famously (and perhaps apocryphally) responded to the Imbaba rebellion with the order, “I don’t want prisoners. I want bodies.”

May 4 will be ugly even if mobs of hungry people don’t appear on the streets to celebrate President Mubarak’s birthday with pitchforks. Protests on May 4 will be an overt challenge to the president, and we can safely expect the government to use force to disperse them and to do everything it can to prevent journalists from photographing the crackdown. If Cairo’s couple dozen die-hard protesters aren’t in jail on May 3, they will be on May 5. The numbers of wounded and arrested will depend on how many heed the call to participate in the protests.

On the hunger for bread: There’s some indication that the government’s attempts to ease the bread crisis are working. Al-Masry al-Youm, whose relentless reporting on price-rises over the past year has turned them into a public issue rather than the subject of cafe complaints, has recently reported that the breadlines have disappeared in many districts. Good.

The hoi polloi will not topple the government on May 4. But the government’s long-term survival may depend on what it does about the country’s deformed agricultural sector on May 5. The army can’t continue to distribute bread forever, and the government knows it cannot continue subsidizing grain at current levels. Tightening up the supply chain by cracking down on black-market sales of subsidized flour has helped, but it won’t solve the problem in the long term, even if the current vigilance holds.

Provided this year’s global harvest is better, grain prices will eventually fall. This will take some of the pressure off, but if the government cannot figure out a way to feed the people without calling in the army whenever a bad winter in Russia drives up wheat futures in Chicago, then there’s little point in talking about development, stability, or political reform. Everything depends on the food supply.

I don’t pretend to know how to reform Egypt’s agricultural sector. Every economist I’ve spoken with is convinced that Egypt should focus on producing those crops that use less water and fetch more money abroad, and that the country should import relatively cheap and water-intensive food staples like wheat. That makes sense in theory, but it hasn’t worked very well in practice so far.

I suspect the Agriculture Ministry’s announcement last month that it would begin paying market prices for Egyptian grain to encourage local production, and that it had earmarked more money to do so, was a step in the right direction—even if it was taken decades too late.