Egypt’s Problem and Its Challenge: Bread Corrupts
In a nation where many survive on just $2 a day, people battle to buy subsidized baked goods
|Photo: A vendor sold bread on Wednesday in a poor section of Cairo, where lines are long and customers pushy. (Shawn Baldwin for the New York Times)|
January 21, 2008
New York Times
CAIRO"Get out! Get back! Get back! I am not selling to you!"
Ibrahim Ali Muhammad, a bread seller, is shouting at his customers. His teeth are brown and misshapen from decay, and he says the stress of his 20 years on the job has given him diabetes. He is standing behind bars, jail-like bars, shouting into a crowd that is pushing, punching, thrusting money at him.
“I already sold to you,” he screams, again, this time distracted by a young man in a blue windbreaker who swiveled on his heels and punched the man behind him.
It is hard to make ends meet in Egypt, where about 45 percent of the population survives on just $2 a day. That is one reason trying to buy subsidized bread can be a fierce affair, with fists and elbows flying, men shoving and little children dodging blows to get up to the counter.
Photo: Fresh baked for less than a penny, and that's just the start of the complications. (Shawn Baldwin for the New York Times)
Egypt is a state where corruption is widely viewed as systemic, which is also why the crowd gets aggressive trying to buy up the subsidized bread. Cheap state bread can be resold, often for double the original price.
|Photo: Fresh baked for less than a penny, and that's just the start of the complications. (Shawn Baldwin for the New York Times)|
“What has not changed in Egypt for 50 years, is not going to change now,” Mr. Muhammad said, though it was unclear if he meant the chaos in front of him or the cheap bread cooking behind him.
Much of what ails Egypt seems to converge in the story of subsidized bread. It speaks to a state that is in many ways stuck in the past, struggling to pull itself into the future, unable, or unwilling, to conquer corruption or even to persuade people to care about one another.
How do you take a broken system that somehow helps feed 80 million people and fix it without causing social disorder? That is a challenge for Egypt at large, and for this little bakery where Mr. Muhammad ekes out a living, with a cigarette hanging from his lips and an angry crowd demanding his bread.
Bread, in Egyptian Arabic, is called “aish,” which literally means life, rather than “khobz,” the word that other Arab speakers use. “The word, applied to bread, gives this everyday element an almost mystical quality,” said Hamdy el-Gazzar, author of “Black Magic,” a popular novel recently translated into English. “Egypt’s relationship to bread is not one of freedom, but of necessity.”
Egypt started subsidizing staples like bread, sugar and tea around World War II, and has done so ever since. When it tried to stop subsidizing bread in 1977 there were riots. Egyptians are generally not known as explosive people, but tell them you are raising the price of bread of life and beware.
So the bread subsidy continues, costing Cairo about $2.74 billion a year. Over all, the government spends more on subsidies, including gasoline, than it spends on health and education. But it is not just the cost of the subsidy that plagues the government. The subsidy also fuels the kind of rampant corruption that undermines faith in government, discourages investment and reinforces the country’s every-man-for-himself ethos.
“The most corrupt sector in the country is the provisions sector,” said a government inspector who asked not to be identified for fear of punishment. His job is to go to bakeries to ensure they are actually using the cheap government flour to produce cheap bread that is sold at the proper price.
The inspector explained why the system was so open to abuse. The government sells bakeries 25-pound bags of flour for 8 Egyptian pounds, the equivalent of about $1.50. The bakeries are then supposed to sell the flatbread at the subsidized rate, which gives them a profit of about $10 from each sack. Or the baker can simply sell the flour on the black market for $15 a bag.
If the inspector, who said he was paid $42 a month, certifies that after three months the baker has faithfully used the flour to bake bread, the baker gets a refund of about $1 a bag. A baker who goes through 40 sacks a day over the three-month period gets back 18,000 pounds (around $3,300) a nice sum, this inspector said, which could easily be shared with an underpaid inspector.
“I am someone getting 230 pounds for a salary,” the inspector said. “Say I want to feed my children three times a day and send them to government schools. To do just that, I need 1,000 pounds a month.”
Abdallah Badawy Aboul Magd, the head of the Provisions Administration office in Giza, said corruption had increased lately because of the soaring prices of wheat and other basic foodstuffs. To try to combat the problem, he said, the administrators have begun a pilot project of separating production from distribution, forcing bakers to sell only to distributors, who can be more easily monitored.
It is hard to assess the actual level of corruption because corrupt practices are not regularly reported. In a prominent 2007 survey that ranked 180 countries by their inhabitants’ “perception of corruption,” Egypt fell to 105 from 70 the year before.
The Egyptian economy has been growing at a healthy rate 7 percent last year but there has been virtually no trickle down. So instead of making life on the streets more stable, the statistically strong economic performance has only made people more annoyed. A recent study for the World Bank lent credence to those widespread feelings of discontent, concluding that overall poverty in 2004-5 “was back to almost the same level as it was in 1995-1996.”
“In sum, almost 14 million individuals could not obtain their basic food and non-food needs,” the report said.
So they fight for cheap bread. They begin gathering outside the bare one-room bakery at about 11 a.m. every day except Friday, the day of prayer.
Over the course of an hour one recent day, 14-year-old Mahmoud Ahmed managed four trips to the counter. His job, he said, was to ensure a steady stream of bread for a nearby food vendor, who then resold it in sandwiches. It appeared that the baker let him push his way to the front to get bread before others. Was there a deal going? Mahmoud would not say.
Down the road, five blocks away, a 12-year-old, Muhammad Abdul Nabi, was selling bread, the same kind of bread, from a makeshift table for more than double the price at the bakery. But there were no lines.
Nadim Audi contributed reporting.