High world food prices have hurt Egypt's poor and the complex subsidy system that is meant to protect them. Can Mubarak's regime ride out the political volatility?by Wendell Steavenson / October 25, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Drive over the bridge from the green Cairene island of Zamalek, from its tree-lined streets, grand embassy mansions and air-conditioned cappuccino cafés with wi-fi access, across the Nile into the grimy neighbourhood of Boulaq: 15 minutes of battered honking traffic to travel from rich to poor. During the pre-war British rule years of cosmopolitan Cairo, Boulaq was a grand quarter. Now its French-oriental wrought-iron balconies are strung with washing, its elegant green shutters are broken and sag over crumbling art nouveau balustrades, and its sandy alleys ring with the clang of metal workers hammering battered hubcaps into resellable shape.
In a side street, one 38-degree morning this summer, a small crowd jostles around a window with a metal grille, wrapping their fingers around the iron bars. This is the local bakery. The crowd—mostly women, conservatively dressed in gallabaya and headscarf—are waiting for the next batch of subsidised bread. Known as baladi, which means “country” with an affectionately derogatory overtone, a loaf costs five piastres, less than 1p. Turist bread from private bakeries, made with finer flour and a bit larger, costs five or ten times as much.
After a few moments the chief baker, Hajj Hussein, appears, weary and with furrowed brow. Through the iron grille, he begins to dispense the flat rounds of baladi, each the size of an outstretched palm, brown and roughly speckled with bran. Coins and mulchy Egyptian pound notes are passed over.
“Give me five loaves!”
“There are ten here,” replies Hajj Hussein.
“Five. God bless you.”
“Take the money.”
Someone pushes, someone elbows.
A girl, no more than four, carefully carries ten puffed loaves away from the crush, and squats by a doorstep. Bent in concentration, balancing the hot rims of each loaf on her fingers lest one fall on to the dusty street, she spreads them out to cool. The women in the crowd by the window cluck approvingly at her diligence.