This story is published in our Spring 2021 edition of Life & Thyme Post, The History Issue.
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A series of violent demonstrations in Tunisia that erupted in December of 2010 and led to the toppling of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, emboldened others across the Arab world. Egyptians, eager to oust President Hosni Mubarak, whose nearly-thirty-year rule had been hallmarked by police brutality and government corruption, began to gather and protest in large numbers in late January.
“The issue of sustained access to affordable food was at the heart of the popular uprisings,” writes Ray Bush, professor of African Studies and Development Politics at University of Leeds and co-author of Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa: Agrarian Questions in Egypt and Tunisia.
That bread, in particular, emerged as a central motif during the uprisings in Egypt a decade ago as shorthand for protesters’ demand for food is indicative of its storied history and political significance in the nation. Bread is a daily staple for millions in Egypt, making the country one of the largest wheat importers and consumers in the world. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, on average, Egyptians get 70% of their starch and protein and 52% of their calories from the staple food.
Baladi bread—a dense, round flatbread covered in bran—is the most common type of bread consumed in Egypt. The word baladi means local, traditional, or my country. According to government statistics, about 85% of Egyptians eat baladi bread every day. For the most impoverished Egyptians, this bread is consumed at most meals as a substitute for more expensive grain-based foods like rice.
Bread also has unique significance in Egyptian language and culture. Whereas most Arabic dialects share the same word for bread, the Egyptian dialect has its own: eish, from the word y’eish, which means to live. In Egypt, the act of earning a living can also be called eating bread. When talking about a close friend, an Egyptian might say that the two had shared bread and salt to describe the strength of their relationship. The food is thus linked to notions of loyalty, shared humanity, and human dignity.
“I know hunger is the main thing [that causes a person to] lose their dignity and lose everything,” says Ahmed Hararah, an Egyptian social justice advocate who earned the name “Hararah,” meaning heat, for his active role in the uprisings ten years ago.
“What made me go down [to Tahrir Square] was [the demand for] human dignity,” he says. “People cannot maintain their dignity if they cannot find their bread.”
Tahrir Square in Downtown Cairo—the largest public square in the nation—was the geographic center of political demonstrations in Egypt in 2011. By some estimates, more than one million people crowded the square during the uprisings as Egyptians traveled from around the country to take part. Tens of thousands also marched in other cities like Alexandria and Suez—their cries of bread, freedom, social justice, and the fall of the regime an echo of those heard in the capital.
As Mubarak struggled to maintain his grip on power, he cut communications and deployed riot police and security forces armed with live ammunition. Thousands were wounded and hundreds were killed in violent clashes.
Protestors’ demand that Mubarak be removed from office was met on February 11 when he resigned and transferred interim power to the military. But food protests continued for months as inflation rose and staple foods moved further out of reach for many families. When Mohamed Morsi was elected and took office in 2012, he promised Egyptians access to affordable bread, but both food prices and poverty continued to increase.
Morsi was deposed in 2013 by a military coalition led by then-General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The coalition detained Morsi, suspended the constitution, and installed an interim government. The following year, Sisi retired from the military and ran for president, eventually taking power in an election characterized as undemocratic amid a sweeping crackdown on dissent.
Under President Sisi, the Egyptian regime has introduced harsh austerity measures to satisfy the requirements of a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But while the regime has devalued the local currency, reduced subsidies on essentials like fuel and electricity, and raised prices on public transportation, it has been hesitant to adjust bread subsidies.
Jessica Barnes, an anthropologist and author of the forthcoming book Staple Security: Wheat and Bread in Egypt, says the refusal to adjust bread subsidies speaks to their significance in Egyptian culture, politics and history. “It is indicative of its significance [that] even when they have made other cuts … they didn’t cut back the bread subsidy,” she says.
The Egyptian government has subsidized baladi bread since 1941, and the provision of low-cost bread has come to be seen as “an expected part of the state’s social contract with its public,” writes Barnes. “Within most people’s lifetimes, they remember cheap bread being available,” she explains. “It’s something that has always been there.”
Bush says the decision to not cut staple food subsidies despite pursuing austerity measures elsewhere is a practical one. More than a third of the Egyptian population earns less than twenty-one Egyptian pounds ($1.30) per day, putting them well below the international poverty line set by the United Nations at $1.90 per day. “If you cut subsidies in that context, you’re going to create increased mortality,” says Bush. “If you touch people’s bread, then you know you’re touching people’s ability to eke out even a terribly poor standard of living.”
Changes to bread prices or the administration of the subsidy program have been a flashpoint for protests in Egypt several times both before and after the January 25, 2011, uprisings. Nationwide riots that erupted in 1977 over government attempts to raise the prices of bread and other essentials as part of President Anwar el-Sadat’s economic liberalization agenda still occupy significant space in the nation’s cultural memory. Then, over just two days, hundreds of thousands of rioters attacked shops, government buildings, and police stations in Egypt’s major cities. The government responded with force, deploying the army and specialized riot police. At least seventy-seven people were killed and hundreds were wounded. The riots were only quelled following the armed response and a government promise to reinstate the subsidies. “Those bread riots have a kind of political power and they’re often evoked today,” says Barnes.
In 2017, when demonstrators in working-class and lower-income neighborhoods in Cairo and Alexandria took to the streets in response to changes to the number of subsidized loaves allotted per bakery, popular references were made to the events of 1977, forty years earlier. Supply Minister Ali el-Moselhi was quick to respond in a press conference, assuring Egyptians that “every citizen has a right to bread.”
Protests swept across Egypt again in September of 2019. While it was widely reported that protestors were responding to a call from exiled contractor Mohamed Ali—who accused Sisi of corruption in a series of viral videos—to take to the streets, Bush says food once again played a role in this show of dissent.
“One of the reasons for that [uprising] was not just the publicity given to Sisi’s building of lavish luxury apartments and holiday resorts for himself and his military cronies, but it was struggles over the economic reforms that the IMF had put in place [and] an attempt to reduce food subsidies,” Bush explains.
The issues are interconnected. When Sisi came to power in 2013, he set out to build. His regime has widened canals, raised cities in the desert, and carved a coiled network of new roads and overpasses into Cairo. As Sisi siphons billions of dollars into concrete vanities, the IMF simultaneously lauds the
“continued strengthening” of the Egyptian construction industry and demands spending cuts. Food subsidies are no longer safe.
The September 2019 demonstrations followed a decrease in the number of people eligible for subsidies. Two weeks later, in an apparent attempt to quell protests, Sisi ordered the re-enrollment of 1.8 million Egyptians who had been removed from the program. He also orchestrated a massive crackdown—dozens of political activists, journalists and human rights defenders were targeted, and protesters were searched, harassed and arrested in droves for the crime of “unauthorized assembly.” Lawyers working in Egypt documented more than two thousand arrests in less than two weeks following the first protests on September 20. Those detained in Egypt face interrogation, torture and imprisonment in one of the nation’s many overcrowded prisons, which house the third-fastest-growing per capita prison population in the world.
Today, more than sixty million Egyptians depend on government subsidies for bread. With a third of Egyptians already living below the poverty line and rising unemployment rates, the number who will need access to affordable staple foods in the future is bound to increase. As the government continues to pursue austerity measures to comply with the terms of its international loans, however, spending on subsidies will necessarily decrease, setting up a situation ripe for unrest. “I think the regime is very mindful [of that],” says Bush, “which is why they’re building more prisons and they’re picking up anybody who has the temerity to protest.”
Many things have changed in Egypt since 2011. Sisi is perhaps crueler than Mubarak was, unflinching in his crackdowns on dissidents and uncaring in his deployment of austerity measures that promise to reduce the majority of Egyptians to bare life and ensure the accumulation of wealth at the top.
But other things haven’t changed. “What we dreamed would happen with the revolution, it was never realized,” says Hararah.
Ten years after the January 25 uprisings, Egyptians still cry out for bread.