Egypt tries to tackle deadly bread crisis

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Poverty in Egypt-Reporter's File-05-26-2011

Story Highlights

Government bakeries sell subsidized bread to poor Egyptians

Turmoil seen as effect of rising food prices on underdeveloped countries

Police say at least seven dead in food lines

"Army bakers" ordered to increase production

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Clashes have been breaking out among Egyptians waiting in long lines for subsidized bread and the president has ordered the army to start baking more to contain a political crisis.

Egyptians line up for bread in Giza on Sunday.

The turmoil in the world's most populous Arab country is a stark sign of how rising world food prices are roiling poorer countries.

Government bakeries sell subsidized versions of the flat, round bread that is a staple of people's diets.

Acute shortages of subsidized bread, which is sold at less than one U.S. cent a loaf, have caused hours-long lines and violence at some sites in poor neighborhoods in recent weeks.

At least seven people have died, according to police. Two were stabbed in fights between customers in line, and the rest died of exhaustion or other medical problems aggravated by waiting in the spring heat.

Independent and opposition parties have been sharply critical of President Hosni Mubarak's government, calling the long lines a sign that his government is failing.

"Our life has become so miserable," said one worker, Saber Ahmed, who spends up to four hours daily in bread lines to get 20 pieces of bread for colleagues at the cafe where he works.

The 17-year-old, wearing a ragged T-shirt as he stood in a long line, said he and co-workers can't afford unsubsidized bread, "or any food to eat with it."

Any Egyptian can get subsidized bread under a decades-old system that also provides subsidies for public transportation and gasoline for all. The system also provides subsidies for some other food staples specifically for the poor.

Demand for the subsidized bread has grown steadily in recent months as rising commodity prices -- especially for flour -- have made unsubsidized bread less affordable.

More than 20 percent of Egypt's 76 million people live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Unsubsidized bread can sell for 10 to 12 times the subsidized price.

The supply of subsidized bread has been decreasing. Many people in Egypt believe subsidized bakeries sell some of their flour on the black market rather than make bread.

Last week, Mubarak ordered the army to increase the production and distribution of subsidized bread to cope with the shortages.

The army and the Interior Ministry, which controls the police, own bakeries that they normally use to feed their employees.

In recent days, the army has opened 10 large bakeries in Cairo to produce cheap bread and has set up about 500 kiosks to sell bread to the public, said Minister of Social Solidarity Ali Meselhi.

The state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper said Mubarak's order to the armed forces to intervene "means that he has declared an emergency state to combat this crisis."

Another columnist in the paper called the bread riots "a very critical moment" for Egypt, demonstrating the gap between rich and poor.

Egypt grows about half of the more than 14 million tons of wheat it consumes every year.

It has also long been one of the top importers of U.S. wheat, using about $54 million of some $2 billion a year in U.S. aid to buy it. But its U.S. purchases have been falling as it searches for cheaper sellers on the world market, where prices have tripled in the last 10 months.

Mubarak has ordered the government to use foreign currency reserves to buy additional wheat, according to his spokesman Suleiman Awad.

The government also will add 15 million new names to the list of those receiving cheap rations of cooking oil, sugar and rice. That and other measures will increase the government's annual food subsidy costs by $3.1 billion to a total of $13.7 billion this year.