Egypt: bread shortages, hunger and unrest

Egypt: bread shortages, hunger and unrest

Hoda al-Latif and the son she describes as “ill in the head” have long relied on the comfort of friends and neighbours. Sympathisers paid the rent on a cramped flat in the rundown east side of Cairo and picked up extra meat at the butchers for the near destitute widow and 25-year-old Ahmed, who the government classifies as mentally handicapped.

Ahmed sells biscuits from a street stall and his customers often slipped him a little extra cash to help out. It all added up, and the al-Latifs sometimes found themselves with enough to pass on the surplus to others in need.

No more. The neighbours plead that they can barely feed their own families these days and rarely buy meat for themselves. Ahmed”s customers no longer stop to buy biscuits let alone give him money. Even their landlady says she has largely given up eating dinner.

“People have always helped us. They did it out of respect for my dead husband,” said Hoda al-Latif. “But with the price rises people don”t help any more. We never have meat now. Some days we just make do with bread and herbs.”

There is a saying in Cairo: nobody dies of hunger in Egypt. But now many of those who rarely took into account the cost of food are going hungry as surging oil and crop prices drive up the price of staples such as rice and pasta. That in turn has forced up demand for heavily subsidised goods – particularly very cheap bread – not just among the half of the population that lives on less than £1 a day, like the al-Latifs, but those further up the social scale.

The surge in demand for the poor quality but cheap bread – the state meets 96% of the cost – came just as wheat prices rose sharply. The government struggled to meet the increased demand and the bread shortages became the focus of a wave of anger at what is seen as official incompetence, indifference and duplicity.

Compounding the crisis is Egypt”s attempts to reform its system of subsidised food for the poor that takes more of the national budget than health and education, and the government”s pursuit of exports and foreign investment by growing fruit for European supermarkets in place of staples such as wheat.

More strident critics of President Hosni Mubarak”s 27-year rule predict the crisis will bring him down. But attempts to translate the evident anger into popular protest have flopped amid fear of the government and the alternatives to it.

In the al-Latif household, dinner was a plate of fried potatoes. Lunch was falafel and beans. Hoda was planning to boil herbs and a packet of chicken stock for the next meal. “I”m not eating as much. This is really bad for me. I have only one kidney. I have liver problems. I need to eat well for that but I don”t get enough,” she said.

Her fridge is bare except for a few leeks and peas, two onions and two lemons. Bread is laid out on the bed.

Cairo”s Al-Marg neighbourhood is a far cry from the elegant French- and Belgian-built apartments of the city centre. Flats in the three-storey block where Hoda and her son live are cramped and spartan in their furnishings.

The al-Latifs live on the middle floor. Below them is the elderly landlady, Zaid Abdullah, who says she has less food on her plate as she scrapes by with the £30 a month rent from the other two flats and what her three adult grandchildren, who live with her, bring in from casual work.

The family on the top floor is more fortunate. Fatma doesn”t want to give her surname because her husband drives a bus for the education ministry and she fears retribution. He earns the equivalent of £70 a month. Fatma”s family was rising up the social scale. One daughter is in university, the other is expected to go there with private tuition.

“We”ve always spent a lot on food but there was enough left over for the tuition and other things. Now it”s a different story. All the money goes on food and rent. Now we buy half a kilo of meat instead of a kilo. We have cut out fruits. Food that lasted one meal now lasts two. Somehow we make it work but there”s nothing left over for the extras.”

Ask who is responsible for all this, and the answer is an evasive: “You know who.”

About 50 million Egyptians, two-thirds of the population, eat subsidised bread. With the increase in demand, a shortage of wheat and the inability of the bakeries to cope, people began to queue for bread at 3am. With the lines came frustration and occasionally violence. In February a man was shot dead in a dispute over a place in a bread queue. A woman was stabbed outside another bakery. The Egyptian press has reported people dying of heart attacks while waiting in extreme heat.

People also found themselves in competition with livestock for cheap bread as peasant farmers realised it cost less than animal feed, pushed up by rising grain prices. Some bakeries realised it too and contaminated subsidised bread so they could sell it at a mark-up to farmers. Others sell off subsidised wheat on the black market and bribe government inspectors to turn a blind eye.

As the crisis deepened, Mubarak called in the army and police to bake bread. They produce about 2.5m loaves a day – little more than 1% of what is needed – but it made the government appear to be concerned.

Mubarak diverted foreign currency to buy wheat on the international market, increasing imports by nearly half so far this year. The government has also planted about a third more acreage of wheat this year and is floating a plan to plant 2m acres in Sudan.

Adel Beshai, an Egyptian economist, said that nonetheless the problem is here to stay. “It”s not going to be fleeting. It has to do with the food-fuel equation. The real issue now is that the price of oil hit the $100 mark and the price of oil will continue to rise. There is now competition between fuel consumption in the developed countries, where food is being turned into cheaper fuel, and food consumption in poorer ones where they want to eat what is being turned into fuel,” he said.

Other economists say the government”s emphasis on growing fruit and vegetables for exports – such as strawberries and oranges for British supermarkets – has been at the expense of staples such as wheat.

The government also added 17 million new names to the list of those entitled to receive subsidised rations, giving access to about 55 million or two-thirds of the population.

The bread queues have eased but prices of other foods remain high.

“People are going crazy,” said al-Latif. “They are really angry over these prices and they complain among themselves but you have to be careful. My son was on a bus and he started screeching about the prices. Everyone told him to shut up and stop talking. They said that the day before there was a guy complaining and they arrested him and blindfolded him and took him away. There”s a saying here, that you disappear behind the sun. People are angry but they are scared.”

The government”s opponents tried to capitalise on the food crisis by calling strikes and mass protests in Cairo last month and early May.

Mubarak sought to undermine them by announcing a 30% pay rise from July for all public sector workers. That went some way to satisfying a large section of a disgruntled working population. But days after the protests passed, the government announced a 35% increase in the price of several goods. People said they had been duped.

“We heard from the president”s speech that they would take from the pockets of the rich and put into the pot of the poor but then we heard the prices have gone up,” said al-Latif.

The protests were in part organised through emails, text messaging and the internet. Three days after the May 4 strike, Ahmed Maher Ibrahim, a 27-year-old civil engineer who used his Facebook site to promote the protest, was snatched from the street by the interior ministry”s state security investigations department. He was blindfolded, taken to a police station, stripped naked and beaten for 12 hours. He was released without charge but warned not to cause more trouble.

A more seasoned protest leader, George Ishak, who heads the Kifaya coalition of leftwing civic groups, was also arrested, held for three days and banned from leaving the country. “They put me in a room without anything. No food, no water. They record my calls. They played them back to me. I was accused of inciting. I told them the real inciters are poverty and unemployment. I was lucky. Younger activists are physically abused, beaten up,” he said.

“The protests did not succeed. People are afraid but the situation is becoming more dangerous. People are trying to cope but they can”t. I”m very worried about what will happen in the coming weeks. This regime doesn”t care about what the people are suffering.”

While many Egyptians are afraid to criticise the government publicly let alone take to the streets, there is a growing defiance.

Around the corner from the al-Latifs, on Sheik Meleik street, live Samia Said and her husband, Walid. She cleans houses, he works in a car park. They earn about £100 a month from which they must find £20 rent and feed two young children. Samia said the whole family eats less. “We used to eat three meals a day but now we can skip dinner because we don”t have the appetite.”

But, unlike many Egyptians, Said is direct in her criticism. “Everyone has been hoping the life of the president will come to an end. It”s because of him and his government that things are out of control.

“We”re not sure why but it is so obvious. He gives the civil servants a raise of 30% and then the government raises the price of fuel. He doesn”t care about people like us at all. People have been talking about it not only in the neighbourhood but on the buses. They all blame the government.”

Hovering in the background is the Muslim Brotherhood. The food crisis should have provided the banned Islamist party with a rallying point in its demand for free elections, but the group has failed to capitalise on the crisis.

One of the group”s leaders, Essam El-Erian, denies the Muslim Brotherhood was holding back and said the food crisis will prove destabilising. “What is given by the right hand is taken by the left. People are furious at this deceit,” he said. “Corruption means the rich will be more rich and the poor will be more poor. You can”t predict the reaction of the poor. Socially it will take away the middle class. It has been gradually disappearing for 10 years. They will join the poor.”

But it is evident that the Muslim Brotherhood has not proved able, or perhaps willing, to take advantage of the crisis and it has left many potential supporters disillusioned.

“Our main policy is to tell people it is complicated but that it is a political crisis before it is an economic crisis and they should be patient,” Erian said.

So who will pressure the government, if not the people? “The only power is the army. We are against a coup d”etat. It is very dangerous for the future but right now it is difficult to see who else can change things,” Erian added