Egyptians struggle with first bread subsidy cut in 21st century

It was a hot, sunny morning in the poor Dar El-Salam neighbourhood in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, when Reda, a 54-year-old house cleaner, queued outside a state-run distribution kiosk with dozen of others waiting to receive their daily quota of subsidised flatbread — cut for the first time in the 21st century.

The government’s recent decision to cut food subsidies, only offered to the beneficiaries of the ration card system run by the Ministry of Social Solidarity, has, indeed, alleviated the ordeal of low and limited-income households in a country whose almost one-third of some 106 population is under the poverty line.

As of June 1, the price of subsidised bread, also called “balady” bread and sold for five piasters since 1988, has increased by 400 percent to reduce what Prime Minister Mostafa Madouly described as “the increasing financial burden inflicted on the state.”

Currently, one Egyptian pound only secures a citizen five loaves of bread instead of 20. The local pound (about US$0.021) is divided into 100 piasters.

“Nearly 70 million Egyptians are eligible to receive food subsidies, which also include other commodities such as cooking oil and refined sugar”

“Our quota of bread has never been enough before and we have always been obliged to buy expensive bread sold for the commercial price to cover the rest of our daily needs,” Reda, who asked to be mentioned only by her first name, told The New Arab, as she waited for her turn in the rather long line.

“I’m not sure how we will be able to manage. We eat bread to feel full after almost all food supplies have enormously increased,” Reda, a mother of four, added, sadly.

Egyptians have always complained about the low quality of subsidised bread and its decreasing size and weight, though. A loaf of Egyptian balady bread weighs less than 90 grams after it used to be about 140 grams.

The price of a loaf of commercial flatbread ranges from one to two pounds, depending on its size, the quality of wheat and the social class of the neighbourhood of the bakery. Other types of Western bread are commercially sold too and are mostly used for sandwiches.

Nearly 70 million Egyptians are eligible to receive food subsidies, which also include other commodities such as cooking oil and refined sugar.

The manager of a local charity organisation sponsoring breadwinners of divorcees and widows, told The New Arab on condition of anonymity, that most of the cases she had encountered “now only eat bread as the main course, sometimes dipped in cumin and salt with nothing else.”

“Most of the children of the mothers I have been working with through the group I run suffer from malnutrition and anaemia for carbohydrates are usually the core of their meals,” the humanitarian told The New Arab.

Aspirations unfulfilled

Commonly named “aish” (meaning “life” in the local Arabic dialect), poor Egyptians consume the popular source of carbohydrates in most meals of the day, even serving it alongside rice or pasta.

In Egyptian culture, the phrase “to earn aish” means to work for a living or a bounty. But almost 13 years on, “bread,” along with “freedom” and “social justice remained the main public demand and a slogan once adopted by activists during the January 25 Revolution in 2011.

One of the main triggers that ignited the revolution was the poor Egyptians who lost their lives as they queued in large gatherings to buy subsidised bread at the time when it was sold for all.

Millions of protesters, who took to the streets of Egypt for 18 consecutive days, assumed that by toppling the regime of long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak, their basic aspirations would eventually be fulfilled.

Nevertheless, in 2024, they seem to have given up on “freedom” and “social justice” and only hoped for bread.

“I can’t provide my children the basic nutritional requirements like eggs and milk for such products have turned into luxuries for most of us, even after prices have relatively declined in recent weeks”

In recent years, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has limited the beneficiaries of subsidised bread to those only eligible to benefit from rations, limiting their daily portion to only five loaves per person with a maximum of four family members regardless of how big a family may be.  

Now even average-income Egyptians have been constantly struggling against an intolerable economic crisis the prices of basic commodities outbalancing reasonable incomes.

“Citizens have been surviving a nightmare when even embracing veganism or a plant-based diet could no longer be a valid option after the prices of legumes had tremendously soared,” a private-sector factory worker, who preferred to remain anonymous, told The New Arab.

“A kilogramme of lentil or fava beans is worth more than double the value of a kilo of really good beef sold during Mubarak’s time,” the 39-year-old father of three said with a sigh, revealing that, “An ordinary breakfast meal would cost him at least 35 Egyptian pounds while he earns 6000 pounds/month.

“I can’t provide my children the basic nutritional requirements like eggs and milk for such products have turned into luxuries for most of us, even after prices have relatively declined in recent weeks,” the worker added.

In 1977, during the reign of late President Anwar Sadat, Egyptians revolted against the rising prices of basic goods, including bread, a move dubbed by the media as “the bread uprising” and by the then-head of state as “the thieves’ uprising.”

Sadat eventually retracted his decisions to avoid further outbursts of Egyptians back then.

“This might not be the case this time for people are so consumed in attempting to secure basic living expenses while fearing the repercussions of revolting again, especially after their pursuits in 2011 for bread, freedom and social justice seem to have failed at least in their eyes,” a professor of sociology at a major public university told The New Arab, who also asked to remain unnamed. 

Economic dilemma 

Over the past decade, Egypt has been undergoing the worst economic crisis in modern history that has taken a toll on most social classes.

The country’s debt soared by 5.1 percent during the fourth quarter of 2022, reaching US$162.94 billion, a total of US$10 billion more than the previous quarter.

The World Bank has recently downgraded Egypt’s economic growth forecast for the current fiscal year to 2.8 percent, the lowest in 11 years.

Since Egypt is the world’s number one importer of wheat, the most strategic commodity in a country mostly dependent on importation rather than local production, the prices of essential goods have skyrocketed following the devaluation of the local currency against the US dollar.

To secure the country’s needs for foreign currencies, especially the US dollar, Egypt has been aggressively pursuing the sale of state assets to wealthy Gulf nations, such as the recently signed Ras El-Hekma deal with the United Arab Emirates against all the odds.

In March this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) extended Egypt‘s loan programme to US$8 billion, first initiated in 2016.

In return, Egypt has been committed to carrying out economic measures — liberalising the exchange rate of foreign currencies to be regulated by market forces and gradually abolishing subsidies on basic commodities.

The regime of Sisi has frequently blamed external factors for the current economic ordeal including the Israeli war on neighbouring Gaza and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Economists, however, argue that severe mismanagement contributed to the country’s dilemma, mostly investing in “white elephant” projects, mainly the New Administrative Capital where the most extravagant church and mosque have been established, new road networks, and a high-speed electric train expected to be used only by the rich.

“Whether or not Sisi’s regime wronged Egyptians, it remains a given fact that only vulnerable classes are the ones mostly impacted by his economic policies,” the sociology professor concluded.  

Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital

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