April 6, 2008 — The subsidized “country bread” of Egypt costs less than a single U.S. cent per loaf. Not surprisingly, this product has seen heightened demand over the last few months as the price of unsubsidized loaves on the streets of Cairo has increased by nearly 30%. Even though Egypt imports roughly 7 million tons of grain per year at market prices recently hovering over $400 per metric tonne, the shortage of Baladi bread has caused fights and murders near bakeries along with the suicide of a man despondent over the welfare of his family. This dangerously increasing demand is very evident as many of those present in this morning’s lines couldn’t say if it was crowded or not in relative terms . . . they had never actually been forced to purchase subsidized bread before today. The Egyptian government has therefore decided to employ its own military to bake and distribute bread. The military is also an intimidating tool used to guarantee social stability in Egypt. Average Egyptians, many earning less than $2 per day, are now literally forced to seek subsistence at the barrel of a rifle.
In protest of the rising prices in Egypt and the generally declining economic opportunities here, Sunday, April 6 has been a day of national strike. Workers have refused to work, children are absent from school, and professors at the American University in Cairo cancelled classes. As a sign of tacit solidarity, many also wore black clothing as they went about their day. Ironically, the obvious sea of black clothing seen in Tahrir Square this morning belonged almost exclusively to government riot police who themselves earn a meagre living in support of the National Democratic Party. In typical crony-capitalist fashion, the shameless threat of force effectively discouraged overt and otherwise peaceful protest here today . . . but with a twist. Perhaps taking a page from America’s playbook, Egypt uses men who are in essence “government contractors” largely or entirely lacking in accountability. The photographs below show the “legitimate” police forces in Egypt along with several of these “informal employees” of the Egyptian government present only to intimidate or attack those who would step over the ideological line set forth by America’s strongest ally in the Arab world. One might also notice the trucks, complete with water cannons and housing even more soldiers, lining the streets near the American University. Appropriately, amid today’s sandstorm, these vehicles appear to be insulating Hardees, Pizza Hut, and McDonalds from any potential violence against the pursuit of corporate profit. Meanwhile, the need for subsidized bread increases along with the mass of human suffering.
John William Salevurakis is Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, American University in Cairo.