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Egyptian bread: fire burning under the ashes

June 20, 2024 at 8:59 pm

A bread seller walks in front of Al-Azhar Mosque in central Cairo on March 23, 2018 [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]

At a first glance, decision-makers in Egypt may think they have succeeded in raising the price of subsidised bread by 300 per cent, effective from the beginning of this month, June.

Perhaps the Egyptian ruling regime is under the illusion that the decision, which affects about 70 million Egyptians, will pass unnoticed, and that it will not have any aftermath effects, but its effects may be only temporarily hidden and can easily erupt at any sign of unrest.

Despite the calm that prevailed on the Egyptian streets following the decision, political sensors managed to detect a state of pent-up anger that is waiting for an opportunity to explode.

A historic high

In fact, the price of subsidised bread has not changed for more than 30 years; given Egyptians’ dire need for bread, which is a staple that is closely connected to life and almost being a lifeline. Thirteen years ago, during the revolution of 25 January, 2011, Egyptians chanted for bread, freedom and social justice, putting bread first.

This close connection of bread to life is accompanied by political and social sensitivity, as bread was the spark for the Bread Intifada, which witnessed widespread protests across the country on 18 and 19 January, 1977. That protest was against the decision of the late President, Mohamed Anwar Sadat, to raise the prices of bread and other food commodities.

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Bread is a staple in Egyptians’ meals, where Egypt produces about 270 million loaves of bread daily. It is the main item at the Egyptian table, and it is sufficient to feed any family if other simple items such as beans, cheese or potatoes were present as a dip.

Bread subsidy card holders receive five loaves of bread per day for each family member, at a price of 20 piasters per loaf ($0.0042), up from only five piasters per loaf before the decision.

It is customary every day, before sunrise, to see men and women queuing in front of bakeries to get the bread allocated to their families to secure food for the day.

The importance of bread in Egypt became apparent in 2008, when dozens were killed because of crowding and quarrelling to get bread, during the crisis of the global increase in wheat prices, which was known at the time as the “bread martyrs”.

For decades, Egyptian governments have avoided changing the price of bread (5 piasters per loaf), but they have always reminded the people that each loaf of bread costs the state 1.25 pounds, with 100 billion loaves produced annually. Egyptian governments resorted to reducing its weight, gradually, from 150 grams to 90 grams, which was considered a trick to raise its price indirectly.

Iman Al-Sayed, a housewife, says that bread will now constitute a burden for her family’s budget, which is struggling to meet its basic needs, in the face of extremely high prices and increasingly rising prices.

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, in a bold move, and perhaps a risky one, raised the price of bread, not caring about the social or economic repercussions the decision would have.

About two years ago, El-Sisi compared the loaf of bread to cigarettes, saying that it was not reasonable to sell 20 loaves of bread for the price of one cigarette and that it had to stop. The opposition considered this statement an underestimation of what bread represents for Egyptians.

M.H, a government employee, commented sarcastically saying that they (the government) raised the price of poor people’s bread while, at the same time, they are building presidential palaces, the largest mosque, the largest church, the largest stadium, the largest opera and the largest flagpole. He considered the decision a painful blow to the poor, which may pave the way for a hungry revolution.

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A striking silence

Despite warnings and fears of a strong reaction, the decision did not arouse the anger of the Egyptians, and the country did not witness any protests or demonstrations. The opposition had hoped that the step would be met with a new bread uprising, but the matter did not go beyond criticism and sarcasm on social media, including denouncing the move and mockery of the promises of the President, who had previously promised the Egyptians not to touch the price of bread, when he declared in 2016 that the “price of bread has not and will not be touched.”

Egyptians recall the statement of the Egyptian army on 1 July, 2013, just before the announcement of the military coup against the late President Mohamed Morsi, when it included the saying: “Egyptians have never had anyone who cared for them”, which later became an article for ridicule and sarcasm. The policy of emotions and friendliness that army generals showed towards Egyptians in the beginning turned into a fierce security grip, arrests of tens of thousands of opponents, dismissal from work and travel bans against activists, in addition to 48 prisons that have been ordered to be established since El-Sisi took over the rule of the country, according to human rights organisations.

This may uncover the reasons behind the forced silence imposed on Egyptians. There is also the increasing pace of repression and the recruitment of thousands of informants to report anti-authority members, and to track down anyone with media accounts and blog posts critical of the government, on charges of a political nature, such as misuse of social media, spreading false news, and disturbing public peace, which are charges that can put those accused of them behind bars for years.

In parallel, the government launched a propaganda campaign to justify the decision, stating that the government aims to convert the subsidy into cash. The state bears, annually, 120 billion pounds (about $2.54 billion) of the value of the bread subsidy, and the government believes that there must be austerity and reduction of this bill to close the deficit in the general budget and reduce the country’s external debt (about $168 billion) by the end of 2023, according to government data.

The decision will reduce the support bill from the state’s general budget by 13.4 billion pounds ($283.5 million), in exchange for raising the monthly bread bill for a family of four from 30 pounds to 120 pounds ($2.5), in a country where 60 per cent of its population is poor, according to World Bank estimates.

Crater of a volcano

Perhaps the growing sense of frustration among a large sector of Egyptians, after the failure of the January Revolution to achieve its goals, is the main reason behind the state of surrender to the decision, which had disturbed the Sadat, while El-Sisi succeeded in passing it with shrewdness and great confidence, which was evident in his government’s announcement of the decision, coinciding with his travel to China, late last May.

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Unlike the apparent quiet reaction, the Egyptian street is raging with an escalating rate of pent-up anger, which sometimes appears in cursing the President during side conversations or ill-wishing him publicly and secretly. Things got to the point where people are implicitly insinuating and expressing wishes that he would not return from his trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj. These are striking signs that whatever credit or public support he may have had left is eroding. People are losing confidence in his promises of a new republic and there is a decline in the prestige of the military institution represented by El-Sisi, as a former Minister of Defence, before his candidacy to assume power, in mid-2014.

Former Assistant Foreign Minister, Ambassador Fawzi Al-Ashmawy, commented on his personal Facebook page, saying: “It’s striking that talking about El-Sisi has become negative and extremely angry. You can hardly find anyone to defend him. Anyone wishing to do so will be met with a storm of anger from everyone and, what is frightening is that the conversation carries a large and unprecedented amount of hatred and public ill wishes against him.”

The reaction has not yet reached a worrying level that threatens of unrest, according to the assessment of political researcher, Anas Al-Masry. He attributes that to the introduction of the state of fear and the change it brought about in the psychology of the Egyptian people and their psychological make-up after the coup of 3 July, 2013, especially since bread is not the first strategic commodity of which price has been increased. The state has raised the prices of fuel, electricity, water and gas, at rates that sometimes exceeded 600 per cent.

Speaking to Middle East Monitor, he added: The absence of active forces in the street, such as the Brotherhood, the April 6 Movement, Kifaya and other Islamic, liberal and leftist opposition movements, has created a great vacuum. There is no leadership to organise protests nowadays as compared to what was the case in 1977, not to mention that there are no proactive initiators who can play this role anymore, for fear of being accused of causing social unrest.

In conclusion, the repercussions of the bread crisis have not yet ended, and perhaps its interactions have not yet begun. There are so many pressures accumulating on to Egyptians and putting them at the crater of a volcano which might be dormant now, but can erupt at any moment.

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