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aish balady

by the stormy present Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 06:47:50 AM EST

Before there were riots, there was a bread shortage.  Plenty of bread here, but not for everyone.

Some time back, das monde pointed to what was, IMHO, a very excellent Washington Post article on Egypt's bread crisis:

In Egypt, Upper Crust Gets the Bread
Shortage Exposes Inequities

Across Egypt this year, people have waited in line for hours at bakeries that sell government-subsidized bread, sign of a growing crisis over the primary foodstuff in the Arab world's most populous country. President Hosni Mubarak has ordered Egypt's army to bake bread for the public, following the deaths of at least six people since March 17 -- some succumbing to exhaustion during the long waits, others stabbed in vicious struggles for places in line.

Economists and analysts say the crisis exposes the government's inability to fulfill the decades-old pact between ruler and ruled here: As long as the country's authoritarian system has supplied cheap bread, its people have put up with the squelching of political rights and economic opportunity. For Egypt's more than 30 million poor, subsidized bread means survival.

As I commented at the time, the Post article is really excellent, and not just because of the snappy headline.

This diary was going to be largely a re-posting (at Migeru's urging) of a comment I made on NBBooks' diary on Haitian food riots, but it sort of, uh, grew.

Here in Egypt, we've had our own food riots, which erupted in the Nile Delta industrial town of Mahalla el-Kubra last week after police crushed a labor strike.

Although the riots were initially reported as a direct outgrowth of the strike, it turns out that most of the rioters, were actually unemployed youth, not workers from the famed Mahalla textile factory -- and there is some credible evidence, including photographs which for some reason I can't find to link to, that the police and their hired thugs in plainclothes inflicted some degree of the property damage... which would hardly be unprecedented here.  So at their core, they were not really labor riots, they were actually food riots.

The strike, incidentally, was fueled by workers' inability to afford to eat, since their stagnant wages have not kept pace with the skyrocketing food-price inflation.  More on that in a minute.

Anyway, it was a vast police overreaction and (surprise surprise) use of excessive force.  Day Two brought these remarkable photos of people tearing down President Mubarak's poster and stomping on it:

The, uh, crackdown after those scenes has been considerble. Hundreds arrested, basically anyone they can get.

Pretty much everyone who's not from Mahalla is being kept out of the town now, so human rights investigators, doctors and lawyers and other activists haven't been able to get up there to examine the wounded or take statements from any of the arrested youths, several of whom have been handcuffed to their hospital beds.  Pictures of that in the local press.

So to get back to what started all of this, it was food prices.  The workers at a single Mahalla textile plant (a really big factory, and one with a long history of activism) threatened to go on strike (which they have done repeatedly in the last year, since the government promises them things, then doesn't deliver) and somehow it got turned into a call for a nationwide general strike.  Which was only partly successful, but which the government still appeared to find absolutely terrifying.

And to pick back up with my original comment, The Post really  nailed the "two Egypts" problem -- the yawning and rapidly widening chasm between the very rich and the grindingly poor, at a time when the latter group is increasingly starting to encompass those who were, just last year, the middle class.  Doctors, civil servants, factory workers, university professors, administrators -- all these people have complained to me that they are having to stretch and adjust their budgets in order to keep affording basic foodstuffs.  These are people with good jobs, paying "good" wages (by Egyptian standards).

I mean hell, if I've fretted about how much higher my grocery bills have gotten -- on my hard-currency salary as a foreigner who is, comparatively, obscenely wealthy -- it's hard for me to imagine how terrifying this whole thing must be for someone on a pension or absurdly low government salary.  According to the World Bank, 20 percent of the population here lives on less than $2 a day (that's what they call the poverty line), and another 20 percent lives "just above" that line.  And food prices have doubled since the beginning of the year.  Doubled.

But prices have been rising for a while -- I've been hearing these complaints from workers for the last year, at least -- and the government is just now starting to sit up and take notice.  And they're doing what they can -- ordering the Army to bake bread, if that's not too surreal for us to comprehend -- but not really addressing the root of the problem here, which is not just rising prices (that's global) but stagnant wages and an entire wage system that's just corrupt and broken, and doesn't just encourage "rent-seeking" behavior on the part of civil servants, teachers, doctors etc., it depends upon it.  The entire wage and employment system is built on corruption, but it benefits the people making the decisions, and so they will order the Army to bake bread poor, but they will not change the system to really benefit the poor.

/ rant

For more reasoned takes on the situation in Egypt have a look at this blog post and a very interesting comment on it, and then this excellent assessment of the general strike dynamics, and this essay on the wider situation here.  (Full disclosure:  all of those posts and the interesting comment were been written by people I know to varying degrees... good god, this city of 18 million people is seeming rather small right now.)

So anyway, those riots in Haiti made me think, for some reason, of the classic song "Marcus Garvey" by Burning Spear...

Marcus Garvey words come to pass.
Marcus Garvey words come to pass.
Can't get no food to eat.
Can't get no money to spend....

OK, Mig, there ya go.  I seem to be incapable of cut-and-paste reposting.

Oh, and to explain the diary title, "aish balady" is the Egyptian term for "country bread," which is the style sold in the subsidized bakeries.  It resembles what you'd think of as pita bread, only less processed.

The actual Arabic word for "bread" is khobz, but in Egypt they use a different word -- aish, which literally means "life."

Bread is literally life here.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Thu Apr 17th, 2008 at 07:36:43 PM EST
So, what do you think the resolution of this will be?

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 1st, 2008 at 03:42:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Interesting reading. I'm glad you can't just repost.. ;-)
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 04:13:11 AM EST
Thanks!  I probably would have been well-served by not writing it at one in the morning after a busy week, because I don't think I was at my most coherent.  (Though I have now fixed the weird sentence fragment after the Mubarak-stomping photo....)
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 04:27:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I just want to highlight something from one of those blog posts I linked to.

What to make of the "general strike" | The Arabist

Speaking of 1977, I was talking recently with a friend who was at university that year about his impressions of what was happening. He told me about one friend who had told him that he had been stopped by rioters who had set up a checkpoint. They politely asked him to step out of his car so they could burn it, as they had been doing all day. He pleaded: "but my car is a small, look at the one behind me, it's a Mercedes." So they let him go, and proceeded to torch the Mercedes. A prominent Marxist professor who had been very supportive of any anti-Sadat initiative then arrived, pale-faced: "the riff-raff have taken over the streets!" The lesson here is that even people who sympathize with workers or would like to see a massive uprising are afraid about the consequences of mass public . 1977 was bloody, and did not resolve anything beyond getting the price of bread to be reduced again -- a poor substitute for the better economic management, job creation and accountability so sorely needed in Egypt. Perhaps yesterday's invisible strikers are still looking for means for meaningful political expression without potential chaos, an option the regime has denied them for decades.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 05:25:58 AM EST
I cannot remember where I read it but I somebody pointed out that once the Nile delta, the most fertile part of Egypt, was dedicated to growing staple foods for egyptians.

However, following the reversal of land reforms that had allowed people to grow their own food, these people were evicted, simultaneously impoverishing them while making them dependent upon food they could buy. The landlords then decided there was more profit in growing strawberries, new potatoes and other soft fruits and vegetables for western supermarkets.

Thus egypt grows far less food than it did, but the rich get richer and the political classes don't give a stuff.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 06:42:26 AM EST
Excellent post, stormy present. There isn't much I can add or comment to your piece. Well done.
by Asinus Asinum Fricat (patric.juillet@gmail.com) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 10:24:55 AM EST
Excellent diary and a really interesting insight into the issue, thanks.  I wish I had something constructive to add.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Tue Apr 22nd, 2008 at 10:06:07 AM EST

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