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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Deadly Egyptian bread lines

In January we learned about a bogus bread shortage in Gaza, artificially orchestrated by Hamas.

In February, we saw that Saudi Arabia had a real bread crisis, not a fake one like the Gazans.

And now, Egypt has a problem with bread - and people are being killed because of it:
CAIRO – Abdel Nabi Salim’s main job in life is queuing for bread.

The graying 65-year-old retired administrator stands under Egypt’s glaring noon sun, waiting in a queue that snakes out to the street to buy 20 loaves of steaming subsidized pocket bread from a barred window for 1 Egyptian pound ($0.18).

Egypt has for decades provided cheap bread for the poor as an expensive but essential component of its economic policy because it enables millions to survive on low salaries and wards off political discontent. But bread lines have lengthened in recent months as costs of other non-subsidized Egyptian staples soared, forcing more reliance on a subsidy regime that depends heavily on costly imported wheat and is also strained by a thriving black market.

The current crunch means that once Salim buys his first batch of bread, he will return to the back of the line to wait, again, for the additional 10 loaves he needs to keep his extended family from going hungry.

“This is a rotten system,” he said, a half-hour into a daily wait for bread that can last several hours. “I come here every day. I have no work, so this is my job. Waiting for bread.” What is happening in Egypt illustrates some of the risks and trade-offs of subsidies, just as more countries worldwide are looking at such measures to try to ease the burden of spiraling global food prices on the poor.

Excruciating lines have prompted media headlines of a bread “crisis” in the most populous Arab country, where cuts in bread subsidies led to riots in 1977 that killed scores and forced the government to back down.

Egypt has allocated over $2.5 billion for bread subsidies for this fiscal year, but said that may rise due to soaring wheat costs. Yet the pressure over bread remains. Observers say sustained problems in the subsidy system could lead to a repeat of the 1977 crisis, if not quickly contained.
“It may be something far more reaching and much more violent, I’m afraid, because people are increasingly feeling that their faces are to the wall,” said Gouda Abdel Khalek, a Cairo University economist.

Already, at least 11 people have died in bread lines since early February, including a heart attack victim and a woman hit by a car while standing in a queue that stretched into the street, security sources said.

One person was shot dead and three wounded after a fight broke out in a queue in one Cairo suburb. Elsewhere, an argument between two boys over their place in line escalated to a brawl in which four people were hurt.

Top Egyptian officials have vowed speedy intervention to restore easy access to subsidized bread, which provides daily nutrition to 50 million Egyptians – or over two-thirds of the population, according to UN statistics.