Egyptians are unique in that they call the loaf of bread a 'loaf for living', as it goes beyond being a commodity to eat and is the pillar of life and existence. There is an Egyptian saying that goes, "those who target the livelihood of the poor will not win", and this is a fact proven by history, starting from the French revolution that was ignited by a loaf of bread, followed by the Egyptian uprising against Anwar Sadat in 1977 while he was at the height of his glory and after his victory in the October 1973 war, when the Egyptian government announced at that time that it was raising the price of bread, which was sold for ten millimes (about one cent). The government also decided to increase the prices of many other strategic commodities, based on the recommendation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to treat the budget deficit and to agree to grant Egypt a financial loan to help it face that deficit.
As soon as the government announced its new decisions in Parliament, and as soon as the news reached all Egyptians through radio stations, widespread popular demonstrations erupted on 18 and 19 January 1977 in many Egyptian governorates and the police were unable to confront them. The government was therefore forced to back down from these price rises, which were very minor, especially when compared to today's large increases, which exhausted the citizens, not only the poor but the middle class that is dwindling in Egypt and which has joined the poor class. It is known that in any society, the middle class is the pillar of the country which maintains balance, but in Egypt, there are now only two classes, the rich and high and mighty, which represent one per cent and the poor class who represent the majority of the Egyptian people.
Al-Sisi surprised the Egyptians with his intention to increase the price of subsidised bread, from which 67 million citizens benefit. It represents the main component of millions of Egyptians' food.
There is nothing more dangerous than the issue of bread for Egyptians, it not only led to protests during the days of Sadat, but also in 2008 during the rule of Hosni Mubarak, which prompted both of them to take a course opposite to what was planned to reduce subsidies after that.
According to government budget data in the current fiscal year, the value of the bread subsidy amounted to $2.5 billion and the number of beneficiaries of bread subsidies is 71 million people. Bread subsidies represent 16 per cent of the total support in the general budget of $20 billion. Its relative share is 2.8 per cent of the total expenditures in the budget, which amounts to $114 billion.
We can also see that the subsidy rate is very low, and every year it is reduced in preparation for the final abolition of the subsidy in implementation of the conditions of the IMF loan, as part of its agreement to lend to Egypt in 2016. All subsidies were reduced, including fuel, electricity and many other strategic commodities.
With the increase in poverty, this food subsidy represents basic support for most Egyptian families, as there are about 30.3 million Egyptian citizens living below the poverty line. Given the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, poverty rates increased, and therefore, it would have been better to increase food support allocations or at least maintain them.
This support is an inherent right of the citizen, such as education, health and assistance funds, which are fully financed by taxpayers, i.e. from the people's money and the citizen's pocket and not from the government's pocket. There are many alternatives that the government can resort to, to fill the budget deficit to gain the $446 million it intends to collect through its decision to increase the price of a loaf of bread.
Bread is the 'load for living' in Egypt, it is the food that preserves the dignity of millions of the country's citizens.
Have mercy on the poor, otherwise the consequences will be dire. Refer to history for proof and learn from it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.