Egyptian anger soars with food prices

Sky-rocketing food prices in Egypt since the start of the year are being matched by a rumbling wave of popular discontent and unprecedented strikes and demonstrations.

Textile workers, teachers, doctors and accountants have all threatened strikes under the united banner of “Stop the expensive life” while doctors went ahead last week with a one-hour work stoppage for better pay and conditions

“The average salary for a graduating doctor now is 220 Egyptian pounds ($40) per month which doesn’t buy very much,” said Hamdi al-Sayyed, head of the doctors’ syndicate.

The syndicate is demanding a nearly six-fold increase in the average monthly wage to at least 1 200 Egyptian pounds ($219).

Last month around 10 000 workers at Egypt’s biggest textile factory demonstrated against price rises, demanding matching wage increases.

The official annual inflation rate reached 12,5% in February, although the cost of foodstuffs including subsidised bread has risen by 26,5% over the past year, also according to official statistics.

The evolution of other staples is equally grim. Dairy products are up 20%, oil is up 40%. The Egyptian press has published a list of rising costs, with some products up 122% since February 2007.

“And you have to remember that inflation is much higher than the figures put forward by the government,” said Ahmed al-Naggar, economist at Cairo’s al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies.

The UN’s World Food Programme said this month that average household expenditure in Egypt had risen by 50% since the start of the year.

“Given that salaries haven’t risen in proportion with food costs, it is becoming more and more difficult for people to survive, particularly those who do not receive subsidised goods,” the UN agency said.

The government says that rising prices are attributable to the rising global cost of commodities such as flour, of which Egypt is one of the biggest importers.

The political opposition says that it is the liberalisation of the economy under President Hosni Mubarak and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif that has made the poor poorer and the rich richer.

Last September the World Bank issued a report on the satisfactory evolution of the Egyptian economy, with a growth rate of 7%, but pointed out that poverty had been on the rise since 2000.

Now, 20% of Egypt’s population of 78-million lives under the poverty line of $2 a day, with another 20% hovering just above. About 4% of Egyptians live in extreme poverty, the World Bank said.

The deepening crisis is accompanied by violence. Two people were killed this week when fighting erupted in a bread queue in the Cairo suburb of Helwan, said a security source.

“If the government doesn’t realise the seriousness of the situation we will be heading for an explosion that will be bigger than that in 1977,” said Mahmud al-Asqalani, spokesperson for the recently created Citizens Against Price Rises.

At least 70 people were killed when bread riots erupted in January 1977 after the government tried to reduce subsidies on the staple, of which Egyptians are the world’s biggest consumers.

The officially sanctioned Egyptian Workers’ Union has said that it will try to get the minimum wage raised from 200 Egyptian pounds to 800 pounds or about $150.

Egypt’s press regularly features stories about the “mad” rise in prices.

“It seems that the Egyptian citizen no longer has any solutions,” the opposition daily Nahdet Misr wrote in an editorial this week.

“Every day he wakes to find a new price rise, so much that the increases are continuing as if in a nightmare.” - Sapa-AFP