Cairo — Wait until May 14, President Anwar Sadat promised a people that is finding peace no easier than war, and prices will go down. Wages will go up. The government will go to work on "relieving the sufferings of the masses."
"Well, we waited," scoffs a granite chunk of a woman at Bab el Louk market, a hive of haggling and hawking in the heart of Egypt's sprawling capital. "We will have to wait forever."
The consensus among political analysts here is that Egypt's many millions of poor, used to poverty, are, indeed, ready to wait a while longer -- but not forever. President Sadat is in a tight corner, squeezed by economic expectations his own rhetorical flourishes helped to create.
As on the Palestinian autonomy front, there is just no quick fix for Egypt's economy -- perhaps no fix at all.
Middle- and lower-level officialdom remains inefficient and corrupt, a holdover from the lumbering state socialism of Mr. Sadat's predecessor, Gamal Abdul Nasser. Egyptian merchants, meanwhile, remain efficient and corrupt.
Essential foodstuffs, in a country nearly all desert, are in perennially short supply. The government holds down prices in its own cooperative outlets, or gamayas. But chickens or tomatoes or detergent soap earmarked for the cooperatives have a funny way of falling into the busy hands of black marketeers only meters from the gamayas' empty shelves.
The rich, benefiting from Mr. Sadat's "open door" campaign to stimulate free enterprise, have gradually been getting richer. Sleek black Mercedes dodge black-clad women toting bricks at construction sites in downtown Cairo.
The poor are getting poorer, if only because there are more of them. Egypt's crowded millions are growing by 1 million each 10 months.
Peace, to hear classroom analysts tell it, has helped Egypt's economy. The return of the Sinai oil fields, in Israel's hands since 1967, should team with increasing production at offshore facilities in the Gulf of Suez to boost revenues this year by about $1 billion. Suez Canal earnings are also up. Foreign aid, particularly from the United States, is flowing fast. Small-scale investment, whether by foreigners or Egyptian entrepreneurs, has been on the rise.
That helps explain the Mercedes. But it has so far done precious little to provide jobs for Egypt's growing millions of poor, much less to curb an officially acknowledged inflation rate of 30 percent that makes these millions ever more difficult to feed.
Mr. Sadat, as the man who rewrote the Middle East rulebook with a single voyage to Israeli-controlled Jerusalem in November 1977, first hinted in a nationally broadcast May Day address this year that he intended to convert peace to prosperity in much the same fashion.
Following a two-week buildup by the pliant Egyptian media, President Sadat went before Parliament and the television cameras to make good on a promise to devote "95 percent of my time" to helping Egypt's poor pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Prices on 77 staple items would drop immediately, he announced. Wages would jump by 10 percent. The national minimum monthly wage would leap by one-quarter -- from 16 Egyptian pounds, or about $22.50, to 20 pounds.
Things did not work out exactly the way he had suggested. May 14 went past with little change apparent.
If explanations in Cairo's state-controlled press were any indication, the " 77 items" included different sizes and brand names of similar or identical items. Some, such as underwear and stockings, were not foremost in the minds of the Egyptian poor. Staple foodstuffs such as grain or bread or brown beans seem to have been excluded, presumably because they already are heavily subsidized. There was at least one notable exception -- the tomato sauce Cairo's impoverished use to spruce up a monotonous daily fare of starch, beans, and, only occasionally, bits of fish or frozen chicken.
Om Mahmoud, bulky matron of a hard-pressed family of seven, lumbered into the crowded gamaya late May 17 to claim peace's contribution to tomato paste.
"We're not selling at the new prices yet. We haven't got firm notification the new prices are being implemented yet," explained the young man behind the counter. The woman had no way of knowing that in the posh quarter of Garden City barely a mile away, a government cooperative in front of the US Embassy already was selling at the new prices.
It would not have mattered. The cooperative at Bab el Louk, in what well-to-do Egyptians diplomatically term a "popular quarter," had no tomato paste. And no locally canned mackeral, also on the reduced-price list. And no cooking oil or chicken, which were not on the list but theoretically are subject to government price directives.
Just outside, at an arcade of private merchant stalls across the street, swarms of buyers haggled for most of these items -- at high prices.
A moustachioed merchant peddled whole chickens, in plastic wrappers signaling that they belonged on gamaya shelves, for 1.40 Egyptian pounds. The official price is 1.05. "But we don't have chicken on many days," sighed a gamaya vendor.
A knot of lookers clearly not ready to become buyers hovered near a private butcher's stall. "Why didn't they reduce the meat prices?" one man asked. An elderly woman sighed, "Ask them.
"I stopped even thinking of meat. I'm substituting other things. But even on those things, like maybe fish every once in a while, the prices aren't being reduced."
At the gamaya, the conversation was similar but angrier. "Whatever has been reduced isn't here," griped one woman. "And prices keep going up. They reduce some prices by millimes [thousandths of a pound] and the rest go up by pounds.
"Look at this fish," she said, fingering a frozen white slab. "Two months ago it was 16 piasters a kilogram. . . . Now it's 45."
"And this talk about a 10 percent raise for wages," another housewife chimed in. "My husband is lucky (making 50 pounds a month), so he'll get 5 pounds. I have seven mouths to feed. How many kilograms of fish or meat can I get with that?" Most Cairenes make far less.
Mr. Sadat and his recently reshuffled Cabinet seem aware of at least some of the problems. At their first meeting May 17, Mr. Sadat spoke of plans to cut prices on additional items while leaning on local officials to ensure the products are actually available at the gamayas.
The question for many diplomats and other Cairo analysts was -- as in his bid for genuinely "full" Palestinian autonomy -- whether Mr. Sadat would be able to deliver.
There also was persistent speculation that -- again, as on autonomy -- President Sadat had been forced to settle for a mere public show of activity on a problem that, for the time being, seems all but insoluble.
For even if the government manages fully to implement the pledge to cut prices while hiking wages, more than a few economists here pointed out, it probably would have to increase subsidies in the process. The price supports, already costing the government an estimated $2.5-3 billion a year although officially budgeted at far less, have been one sticking point in Egypt's bid for increased foreign economic aid.
Egypt tolerates poverty and hunger with a toughness bred by centuries of poverty and hunger. It took an effort to cut price subsidies to trigger widespread food riots in January of 1977, and no one expects Mr. Sadat to repeat that experiment.
The problem, as Cairo diplomats state it, is that Egyptians at peace expect more than Egyptians at war. Mr. Sadat himself has contributed to that phenomenon -- at one point even foreseeing a peacetime blanket of green for the stark sand of the Sinai.
Egyptians by themselves probably are not inclined to turn to violence for cheaper tomato paste -- if they still can get along with the five piaster per head bread-and-bean lunches that, although cheap by Western standards, stretch some family budgets here literally to the limit.
But there is no guarantee that political opponents of Mr. Sadat will not seize on rumbling stomachs as a potent weapon.