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.
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....