Let Them Eat Rice

"On April 5, there will be a general strike. Please put up Egyptian flags, do not go to work, do not go to school and university, and refrain from shopping."

This announcement has appeared during the last few days on Internet sites of the left and right opposition, students and bloggers. Even Facebook has been enlisted to promote Egypt's major strike set to take place two days before the local elections - the power struggle between the ruling party and opposition, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

"It's not a civil revolt. It's nonviolent opposition to a government that thinks it can do as it pleases to its citizens," a popular Egyptian blogger told Haaretz. "Thousands have already announced that they will participate in the strike, and I'm sure that by the time the chosen date comes around, there will be hundreds of thousands more, because everyone's fed up."

The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, is aware of what is going on. In the past year, he has seen dozens of strikes and demonstrations by railway workers, public transportation drivers, the tax authority, metalworkers in factories, and university lecturers. Mubarak is also implementing a new policy in which he does not order the strikes ended through force, but meets with worker representatives, and in some cases even agrees to their demands.

But it seems the Egyptian government is not missing an opportunity to provide its citizens with cause for dissatisfaction. The planned strike, ostensibly to protest a shortage of bread and pitas, brings to mind the 1977 bread riots during the tenure of the previous president, Anwar Sadat. Then, in reaction to the lifting of price controls on basic foodstuffs, thousands of irate citizens set fire to buses and buildings and forced the government to retract its decision.

This time it is not a case of lifting price controls over basic items, but concern about the very existence of bread. Millions of Egyptians who buy cheap, subsidized bread suddenly discovered that government bakeries are incapable of supplying the goods. Long lines stretched outside these bakeries, and some people pulled knives. At least two people were stabbed to death and dozens were injured in scuffles over places in line, prompting fears of rioting throughout the country.

Eating animal feed

In an unusual step, Mubarak ordered the army and police to help produce bread. Military and police bakeries received more flour, and the army was ordered to quickly set up large bakeries to produce an additional 6 million or so pitas a day to meet demand. These steps were given plenty of publicity to calm the public, but the crisis exposed the regime's economic and political fragility.

The crisis is not an exclusively Egyptian creation. All over the world, the price of wheat has risen due to erratic weather, reduced flour subsidies in Europe and huge growth in demand in China and India. This is an existential matter for Egypt, which imports around half its flour. When the price of flour increases by 50 percent, the government cannot continue selling subsidized pitas for a price equivalent to around three agorot each.

On the other hand, every increase in the price of pitas sparks mass protests, because more than half the people rely on them for sustenance. So Mubarak ordered another $1 billion injected into the treasury to cover the price difference, a huge sum for a country already mired in debt.

But the increase in the price of flour is not the only reason for the bread shortage. Corruption is plentiful at the bakeries that receive government flour and sell the bread; most of them belong to associates of the ruling elite. It is estimated that these bakeries sell at least 30 percent of the subsidized flour as expensive bread on the open market.

So, for example, angry citizens in Cairo this week nabbed bakery owners who tried to "smuggle" out of their bakeries thousands of pitas intended for the poor population, to sell them for higher prices on the free market. There are also people who buy large quantities to feed animals, because pitas are very inexpensive compared with animal feed.

The law does impose a fine of around NIS 5,000 for using subsidized flour to make a profit, but apparently the fines imposed so far, totaling some NIS 85 million, do not reduce instances of fraud. Nor do the "encouragement grants" for those who make proper use of subsidized flour help. The profit margin that allows a bakery that bought a sack of subsidized flour for about NIS 5 to sell it on the open market for around NIS 65 leaves the government far behind.

The mouse's tail

Corruption is one thing, but the quality of the bread itself has become the butt of jokes. There is one about an Egyptian who bought a pita and found a mouse's tail in it. When the man wanted to punch the vendor from whom he bought the pita, the vendor blocked him and said: "It's a contest. Buy another pita and fill in the missing parts of the mouse, and that way you'll receive 10 pitas for free."

Now the government is proposing a separation of production and sales and the opening of more pita distribution centers. Others have suggested planting more wheat, so Egypt will be able to account for all its flour needs on its own, while some simply feel the agriculture minister should be dismissed. The minister, Amin Abaza, says the problem's causes should be sought elsewhere completely.

"Foreigners buy Egyptian wheat before it ripens, to use the sprouts for cosmetics. They pay a fortune to farmers, but are creating a deficit," he told the newspaper Al-Hayat.

In the meantime, Mubarak has ordered a halt in rice exports from Egypt to prevent a shortage of that. This is because when flour prices rise and bread is produced in small quantities, the poor switch to rice.

The flour crisis is only a symptom of Egypt's severe economic straits, where some 40 percent of the 78 million people live below the poverty line or slightly above it. Real change requires revolutionary reforms such as reducing subsidies for basic products and creating jobs in the nongovernment sector, whose effects would only be felt after many years.

But for the regime, which faces the threat of a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, making such decisions is hard. The question being asked now in Egypt is how long will the government be able to transfer money from one street to another and one pocket to another before it turns out that there is no more money to transfer.