Thursday, January 17, 2008

In Lebanon, in Egypt: bread, corruption and riots

"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 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 reflects the centrality of bread here. This is a culture of bread, not rice, not meat and potatoes, not humus.

Simple, doughy round pockets of bread that look like pita bread but are baladi bread, that is, peasant bread.

"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. Then when Gamal Abdel Nasser and his military allies overthrew the monarchy, the state leaned heavily on subsidizes to maintain social order and promote a socialist economic model. When the government 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."

When neither government nor private sector work, what's the solution?

No comments: