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Egypt’s countdown to a new bread uprising

March 10, 2022 at 8:01 pm

A picture taken on January 16, 2022 shows a baker making bread in Badr city, 65 kms east of the Egyptian capital Cairo [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

While the international economy was groaning under the effect of the pandemic and a global GDP shrinkage of 3.60 per cent, Egypt celebrated a world-record growth rate above three per cent both in 2020 and 2021. The Egyptian government received the expected praise from the Washington-based financial temples, which ignored essential vulnerabilities in the Egyptian economy behind the lustrous figures.

The Egyptian economy’s growth pattern has depended on the expanding governmental investment in infrastructure and real estate over the past few years. The government relied on loans to finance this expansion, building up unprecedented foreign debt of about $137 billion.

The Russian war on Ukraine following the coronavirus hit came to shatter this monetary financial manoeuvre. On the one hand, it has presented a heavy blow to tourism in Egypt, which generates about $13 billion in revenues annually, while placing unbearable financial pressure on the state budget due to the rising prices of wheat and oil.

READ: Arab countries urge citizens to contact embassies in Ukraine

Egypt is a net importer of crude oil and petroleum derivatives, with over 120 million barrels of crude imported annually. Over the past few years, the government drafted the oil price budget of about $61 per barrel. With a global barrel price of over $120 and predictions that this could hit over $150, the Egyptian government would have to double its allocations in the budget.

Another hit comes from the wheat and food prices. Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer, with 11.6 million tonnes brought into the country in 2021. The Egyptian Minister of Supply, Ali Moselhi, said that the government assumed the wheat price at $255 per tonne, but is now paying $350. Unfortunately, the problem does not cease here as 86 per cent of Egyptian imports come from the two warring countries, Russia and Ukraine. As a result, Egypt has to search for new sources that are expected to be more expensive due to the higher quality offered and the shipping costs.

The blow came when the government had already burdened the people with continuous price rises, freezing wages and the withdrawal of subsidies. The government had nearly eliminated electricity, water and fuel subsidies and cut food subsidies in value and in terms of the number of beneficiaries. It was also preparing to raise the price of subsidised bran (baladi) bread after reducing its weight.

The last step has been a social taboo for the government since 1977 when a decision made by President Anwar Sadat to increase food prices brought the people into the streets in one of the most violent social protests in Egypt’s modern history. The “bread uprising”, as it was called, was not exclusive to Egypt, it hit most Arab states over the 80s with the introduction of the free market under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund. Tunisia and Morocco witnessed bread uprisings in 1984, Algeria in 1988 and Jordan in 1996.

Egypt is now expected to experience another. When the Egyptian dissident businessman Mohamed Ali sparked an uprising in 2019 after exposing President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s corrupt financial conduct, the protests were fueled with the widespread outrage that accumulated since the launch of the economic reforms in 2015.

Nevertheless, in all the cases indicated above, political and social forces were ready to mobilise society, lead the protests, and forge its political demands. In Egypt in 1977, there were the New Left students’ and workers’ cells and the rising Islamist movements. The activists of this period headed the Egyptian political and cultural scene for the upcoming decades. In Tunisia 1984, the uprising was a declaration of the birth of the Ennahda Movement. In Algeria 1988, the uprising preluded the sweeping rise of the Salvation Front, the Islamic alliance that almost ruled Algeria after the elections in 1991 until a military coup prevented it.

Al-Sisi has worked since his military coup in 2013 to eliminate potential rivals. After smashing the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements between 2013 and 2015, he turned to the secular forces, including those who allied with him against the Islamists. As a result, Egypt has become a police state where there is no political voice other than that of the ruler.

Security bodies have cracked down on apolitical civil society groups to silence human rights advocates and criticism of the state.

In such circumstances, the widespread outrage accumulated but remained suppressed in the absence of an organised force that could mobilise and bring people together in an effective political movement against the combination of authoritarianism and economic incompetence.

This time it could be the poor rising up in a bread uprising rather than a political movement.

READ: Russia invasion of Ukraine puts Middle East food supplies at risk

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.