The politics of bread in Egypt.

Author:Cox, Stan

As Egypt's revolution moves into what could be its most crucial phase, its supporters are demanding that the slogan "bread, dignity, and social justice" be recognized as more than a slogan. But a recent United Nations report warns that "economic issues, which have been central to the Arab uprisings, are trailing behind the political issues" in the struggle over the future of Egypt and its neighbors, "potentially risking the erosion of popular support for democratic transition if they are not properly addressed."

On the list of economic issues in Egypt, food is never far from the top. As people warily look ahead to a new constitution, presidential elections, and an uncertain future beyond that, one thing is guaranteed: The country's epic daily struggle to provide bread to every citizen will go on.

Egyptians consume more bread per person than do people in any other nation. Each day, families in every income bracket bake or buy stack, of aish baladi, or "village bread" (aish means "life" as well as "bread"). The light brown, oven-inflated discs are produced by more than 20,000 small, government-subsidized bakeries to be sold for five piasters (less than a US penny) apiece, or by private bakeries that sell at a far higher price.

The government also issues ration cards with which families can buy a given quota of subsidized flour, rice, sugar, cooking oil, and tea each month at designated shops. But, as with people in other countries (most prominently, India) that have public food distribution systems, Egyptians have distinctly mixed feelings about these programs.

Farmland limited

Food security policy has little room to maneuver in Egypt, where the per-person endowment of cropland is one of the smallest in the world. Virtually all 82 million Egyptians, along with almost all agricultural lands, are squeezed into just 5% of the nation's total land area: A strip running 8 to 15 kilometers wide along the Nile River and fanning out through the Delta. It's as if the entire population of the United States and all of our agriculture were clustered within 60 kilometers of the Mississippi.

That leaves only one twenty-fifth of a hectare of agricultural land per Egyptian, or a 20-by-20-metre postage stamp of ground sown to wheat, rice, maize, lentils, beans, vegetables, cotton, animal forage, and date palms. As a result, Egypt has become the world's number-one importer of wheat, and imports a large share of many other food requirements--a trend the...

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