Bread Is Life: Food and Protest in Egypt

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It’s impossible to say what exactly the next few days will bring in Egypt, both for the protestors and for the government. It seems clear that the days of the administration of President Hosni Murbarak  — at least in its present incarnation — are numbered, and tens of thousands of demonstrators on  the streets of Egypt’s cities will very likely remain there until some epochal shift has come to pass.

Whoever ends up seeing the nation through to its next phase would do well to keep bread high on their list of priorities.

In the last few days, soaring food prices have been cited as one of the proverbial straws that led Egyptians to take to the streets in frustration over Murbarak’s 30-year rule. It wouldn’t be the first time that food has been a catalyst for social upheaval in the northern African nation. In 1977, what came to be known as the Egyptian Bread Riots broke out after the state ended its subsidies of basic food staples. Hundreds of thousands of poor Egyptians took to the streets; scores were killed and hundreds were injured. Thirty years later in 2007 and 2008, as food prices soared and food riots swept cities across the globe, panic over a disruption in the supply chain of flour and bread in Egypt again unfolded into deadly protests.

This year, food prices are also reaching worrying highs. Global wheat prices are at an all-time high, and other grains and meat prices were up over 20% by the end of 2010. Though some 40% of Egypt’s 80 million residents live in poverty, high food prices don’t have the same impact in Egypt that they might have in other vulnerable countries. The nation has a huge subsidy program that, when its working right, helps protect its poorest citizens from inflated food prices. Two years ago, when food prices were soaring and riots broke out, there technically was no food shortage, but the high prices of commodities – and bad management of the private and government supply chain – led to disruptions in the supply of subsidized grain, so many couldn’t afford to eat.

What’s troubling today, says FAO senior economist Abdolreza Abbassian, is the prospect of a similar disruption in any potential power vacuum that could take place in the coming weeks, months, or years ahead. In 2007 and 2008, the protests happened “when authorities were still in full control of the country,” says Abbassian. “When there was no major threat to the establishment, the country found itself in the midst of a big problem…Today, what can we say? This is what worries me.”

In Egypt, the Arabic word for bread — “aish” — is also the world for life. Egyptians are the world’s largest consumers of bread and Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer. The government buys most of the wheat it needs each year from wheat exporters like the U.S., Canada and Australia. Because it’s so early in the year, millions of tons of purchased wheat for 2011 are still en route to the country. The current state of disorder could pose problems for the wheat supply to get in. “If the import doesn’t materialize, I don’t think Egypt has enough supplies domestically to meet the demands of the population,” says Abbassian. “There is a sense of insecurity in the city… The last thing  you want is the subsidy to start failing.”

If that happens, the demonstrations that have been chiefly political in nature may very well take a sharp and potentially dangerous turn, and the government could have a new kind of emergency on its hands. “Whoever takes over knows that meeting the food demand of the 80 million will be the highest priority,” says Abbassian. “I don’t think there could be any bigger priority than this.”