Brawls Over Bread

Over the past fortnight, tension has risen in Cairo due to the ongoing bread shortage, with disturbances in long queues causing a number of deaths.

Under a decades-old system, which also provides subsidies on public transport and petrol, subsidized traditional flat round bread should be available at government bakeries to all Egyptians, but the present crisis is pushing resources to the limit.

Rising commodity prices — especially for flour — have made unsubsidized bread less affordable, but in recent months demand has grown steadily. The World Bank statistics show that more than 20 percent of Egypt’s 76 million people live below the poverty line. According to officials, subsidized bakeries sell some of their flour on the black market rather than make bread.

Heba Kandil, a spokeswoman for the World Food Programme (WFP) Cairo office, takes a broader view. ‘ This [the bread shortage] has emerged from a number of factors, including the rise in oil and energy prices, the economic boom in nations like India and China, which is increasing demand, climate and weather-related events such as droughts and floods, and competition between food and fuel, where more land and agricultural crops are being used for bio-fuels than for food.’

In the meantime, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has asked the army for help in baking and distributing bread. According to the Minister of Social Solidarity Ali Meselhi, it has opened 10 large bakeries in Cairo, as well as about 500 bread stalls.

Over in Gaza, a bread crisis has also been under way on account of a bakery strike, with bakers blaming the militant Islamic Hamas for keeping prices artificially low. The area has suffered from severe shortages since the Israelis imposed economic sanctions after Hamas occupied Gaza last summer. Hamas, for its part, has defied the strike, arguing that its price policy is necessary for humanitarian reasons.

Victoria Blackshaw
[email protected]

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