For much of its history, Egypt’s greatest asset has been the fertile land either side of the world’s longest river, the Nile. For the three centuries, the alluvial plains of the Fayyum region south of Cairo sustained the country’s Ptolemaic rulers, and for the 500 years that followed the country was the single most important source of wheat for the Roman Empire. Such was its renown as Rome’s breadbasket that in the second century AD, coins were minted showing Emperor Hadrian receiving grain from Alexandria, Egypt’s second city.

The contrast with modern-day Egypt could not be more dramatic. It is now the largest wheat buyer in the world. In the financial year 2006-07, it imported 7 million tonnes of wheat, almost equalling the 7.4 million tonnes produced domestically. In the eight months from July 2007, it imported a further 5.2 million tonnes. A substantial proportion of the country’s 75 million population now rely on bread that is heavily subsidised by Cairo.

In recent weeks, this system has completely broken down. The soaring price of unsubsidised bread has increased demand for the subsidised product at the same time as spawning a black market for flour that has reduced the availability of the state-supported product. Local media have reported queues of more than seven hours to buy subsidised bread and up to 15 people are reported to have died in the bread lines. Police have confirmed that at least seven people have lost their lives, a result either of violence or of standing in the intense heat of the African sun.

Government intervention

The crisis reached such a fever pitch in late March that President Hosni Mubarak intervened directly, ordering the army to supply bread to the population to make up the shortfall. Measures are also being introduced to separate the production of bread from its distribution to minimise opportunities for the sale of flour on the black market.

The sense of a government that has lost control of the situation has been heightened by a series of strikes. A one-day strike in late March by more than 800 university lecturers demanding the doubling of their salaries and the creation of a new pensions fund was accompanied by a march in support of the tutors by students of Helwan University, south of Cairo. Doctors staged a seven-day sit-in protest against salaries averaging just $50 a month after the government ruled their plans for a two-hour strike on 15 March were illegal.

Textile workers went on strike on 6 April to demand higher wages, following strikes at several individual textile plants, and steel workers have also threatened to strike if their wage demands are not met. In the closest the country has ever come to a general strike, left-wing and liberal groups held a ‘day of anger’ to coincide with the textiles workers’ action to give ordinary Egyptians an opportunity to demonstrate against their plight.

The chaotic scenes of recent weeks have raised the spectre of January 1977, when at least 70 people were killed in riots after Egypt’s then president, Anwar Sadat, tried to reduce bread subsidies. The regime’s political opponents have been quick to characterise the strikes and bread crisis as evidence of regime failure.

“This protest is not the first and it won’t be the last,” says Essam el-Aryan, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s main opposition movement. “The fact that the president has had to use the army and the police to solve the situation is a very dangerous sign. It shows that the solution is not a civil solution but a military one.

“It is a failure of the political system, a failure of the government’s economic reform programme, and a failure of the government to provide the essentials of life for its population. Egyptians are very patient people and have been waiting a long time for things to improve. But now they are ready to explode.”

Escalating problems

“There is a management crisis in the government,” says Sameh Ebeid, assistant secretary general of opposition party Wafd. “Problems are accumulating and they cannot keep up. The fact that they are only doing something about the bread issue now suggests they either did not realise it was a problem or they ignored it.”

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has denied that there was any connection between the bread crisis and the strikes, and says the civil unrest caused by the bread queues was not politically motivated. Reports of political dissatisfaction were motivated by a desire to make political capital out of the events ahead of local elections, it adds.

“There has been conflict between people over the availability of bread, but it has not become a political issue,” says Ali el-Din Helal, a member of the NDP’s high secretariat. “We do have political demonstrations, but there is no link between the two.”

Some commentators agree that the criticism of the government by opposition groups has been opportunistic. “The civil unrest is not as bad as it may have appeared,” says Adel Beshai, a professor at the American University in Cairo. “The people have been fighting each other, not the government. In the end, people are happy that the solution introduced by the police and the military is working well.”

It is unlikely that either the bread shortages or the recent spate of industrial action will have a lasting political effect. But the frustration of the regime’s opponents is understand-able. The lack of political choice in Egypt makes the government all the more vulnerable to criticism when it is seen to fail its people.

The results of municipal elections on 8 April were a foregone conclusion. The main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been illegal for more than 50 years, with its members campaigning under the Muslim Brotherhood banner but forced to register as independents.

Since parliamentary elections in 2005, when it won 88 seats – equivalent to 19.3 per cent of the vote – it has been increasingly marginalised. The local elections were originally scheduled for 2006, and many feel they were put back in reaction to the party’s performance at the polls the previous year. In the weeks before the elections, the Muslim Brotherhood claimed that police detained more than 800 of its members and only 438 were able to register to stand for the elections despite more than 5,000 attempting to do so.

“It has been common practice since 2005 to arrest Muslim Brotherhood members in the run-up to elections,” says Gasser Abdul Razek, a spokesman for pressure group Human Rights Watch in Cairo. “In recent weeks, the government has resorted to the same tactic of not accepting their registration papers and arresting potential candidates and their campaigners.”

Election concerns

With candidates from other opposition parties reportedly encountering similar barriers to registration, the NDP was the only party with enough candidates to compete for more than a small proportion of the seats. In total, about 57,000 candidates were expected to compete for about 52,000 seats, leaving the NDP unopposed in most constituencies.

Some argue that the government has been more tolerant of demonstrations and media criticism in recent months, and that reformist elements within the ruling NDP party, centred around Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son and heir apparent, are beginning to drive political change.

“There is a cabinet of technocrats from the private sector, many of whom are not from the party,” says one senior economist at a Cairo-based financial institution. “Gamal is a reformer and there is a more liberal wing of the party with him that does want to open up to debate. There are only a small number of people, but it is increasing.”

Political change in Egypt will be slow at best. Although opposition candidates have been allowed to run in presidential elections since 2005, the terms on which they can do so are restrictive. In addition to parliamentary support, candidates must be supported by 140 local councils from 14 districts. In the Shura Council elections in 2006, only three independent candidates were elected.

President Mubarak’s claim that 2007 would be a year of reform has also yielded little in terms of change. The state of emergency that has allowed the president to exercise special powers, including detention without trial, since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 was renewed for two years in April 2007. Proposed changes to the constitution announced by the government in March 2007 have offered little encouragement, with many of the planned changes seen to be simply incorporating elements of emergency law to the constitution.

While the bread crisis and the recent series of strikes have no doubt unsettled the government, sweeping political change in Egypt is not on the horizon. It is up to the government, there-fore, to begin to translate the progressive thinking of the cabinet technocrats and the more liberal elements of the NDP to the wider party. For the time being, though, it will have its hands full ensuring it can fill the stomachs of its poor.

Key Fact

Egypt imported 7 million tonnes of wheat in 2007, making it the world’s largest wheat importer.