Not by bread alone

Not by bread alone

WORKERS straggled towards the gates of the Mahalla spinning works, one of Egypt”s biggest textile mills. The prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, had just thanked them in person for not going on strike, and granted them an extra month”s wages. But it took no prompting to elicit grumbles. “I don”t want a car, I don”t want cinemas, I don”t want to eat Kentucky chicken,” declared Masoud Hafez, an electrician who has worked in the factory for 28 years, brandishing a monthly pay-slip of 249 Egyptian pounds ($46). “I want bread for my children.”

In this grim town in the flat Nile delta north of Cairo, the state-owned factory”s 25,000 workers are the lucky ones. A show-piece for make-work socialism in the 1960s, the mill stopped hiring five years ago. There are few other jobs in the area. Police threats and government promises kept its employees from joining an attempt at a nationwide general strike on April 6th. But they did not stop jobless youths from launching a two-day rampage that left one man dead and turned the town centre into a rubble-strewn encampment for thousands of riot police.

Such unrest is not unknown in the town. But in general Egypt”s 77m-plus people are famed for their passivity, and on paper have reason to be placid. Their economy, which grew by 7% last year, is sucking in record foreign investment, particularly from the cash-flush Gulf. Tourism is booming. Sales of new cars have quadrupled in five years. Cairo”s suburbs gleam with fancy villas, golf courses and shopping malls.

Yet such gains have yet to reach the poor, the vast majority of Egyptians. Despite subsidies that keep bread and fuel at a fraction of world levels, the cost of other essentials, such as cooking oil, fresh food and building materials, has risen faster than meagre wages. The official annual inflation rate touched 12% in February.

The squeeze has made Egyptians rely more than ever on bread, just when world wheat prices are soaring. The government has raised its subsidy allocation from less than $2 billion last year to $2.5 billion this. But corruption and inefficiency still conspire to make the flat, round loaf, costing five piasters (one American cent), increasingly scarce.

Eleven Egyptians have died in the past two months in incidents related to lengthening bread queues, prompting President Hosni Mubarak to order the army to bake and distribute extra loaves. But after 26-and-a-half years of Mr Mubarak”s rule, all of them under an official state of emergency, few Egyptians think that using the security forces in this way is a good idea; increasingly, it is looked upon as part of the problem.

Before elections on April 8th for local councils, for instance, police jailed some 800 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, despite an official ban, remains Egypt”s most effective opposition. The arrests, along with the administrative disqualification of some Brotherly candidates and a decision to ignore court orders for others to be reinstated, left just 20 Brothers in the field out of some 5,000 candidates that the group had hoped to run for the 52,000 or so local seats. As a result, the Brotherhood, which has long professed a commitment to peaceful change, declared a boycott.

Whether in response to this call or not, very few voters showed up; understandably so, considering that, for an estimated 90% of seats, members of the ruling National Democratic Party ran unopposed. In many of the others, back-room deals allowed a smattering of candidates from several feeble but legally recognised opposition parties to win. The local councils have little power, but the window-dressing of loyal opponents and the exclusion of the Brothers are still both significant, because a constitutional amendment stipulates that candidates for Egypt”s next presidential election must first be endorsed by at least 140 local councillors.

The increasing brazenness of such cheating has soured the mood, at a time when people are already angry about their pinched wallets. Yet the response to the ill-planned call for a general strike was weak. There were calls for the nationwide protest, disseminated via internet chat groups and text messages, to coincide with the stoppage, later cancelled, at Mahalla. Some white-collar unions but none of the leading opposition parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, endorsed the action. Few people actually stopped working. Yet many, for fear of unrest, chose to put off their errands, keep children home from school or call in sick, leaving the streets of Egypt”s big cities eerily empty.

It is hard to predict what would happen if another such a strike were better organised. Police have rounded up several dozen alleged ringleaders of this week”s failed action. But enthusiasts have already called for another general strike, on May 4th, Mr Mubarak”s 80th birthday.