Cairo — Chaos breaks loose on Saad Zaghloul Street three times a week. Just the other day, close to 70 people waited for more than two hours in the hot sun at a tent the government had set up.
Why? They were waiting for special shipments of chickens and ducks. The government is making them available during the month-long meat ban President Sadat declared Sept. 3 to fight soaring meat prices.
As the day's shipment of live ducks arrived the crowd became excited, and the tightly packed lines of men and women began to sway, and while truckers unloaded the ducks inside the tent, butchers began their work.
Chaos followed. Ducks ran hither and thither.Men and women dashed after them. Children, squealing with excitement, joined in.
Eventually, some people went away empty-handed and angry. Critics said that the government had gotten itself mired in yet another pledge to provide adequate supplies of food at fixed prices despite its limited means.
The meat ban, coming on the heels of widespread strikes in Poland triggered by rising meat prices, is seen here as a political move by the government in response to consumer discontent.
But the decree was issued suddenly, with little forethought given to consumer reaction, providing adequate substitutes, or devising beforehand an overall plan. Even in government circles, there was no clear idea as to an actual figure for meat consumption.
The meat ban started a rush of panic buying. Poultry, fish, and eggs now are largely unavailable. The price of chicken has risen from Egyptian $:1.05 a kilo (2.2 pounds) to $:1.25 kilo in government stores, and from Egyptian $:1.60 to $: 2.00 a kilo on the free market.
The price of eggs has risen from 7 to 10 piaster an egg. And the price of fish is up 70 piasters, making them Egyptian $:2.00 a kilo on the free market, when they can be found.
Local restaurateurs complain they are losing business to the big hotels, which are exempt from the meat ban.
A ministerial committee for food production has attempted to address the problem by announcing that beginning Oct. 1 the price of meat will be fixed and that meat may be sold only twice a week. Minister of Information Mansour Hassan has announced the decision to import 160 million eggs, and says that imports of meat, poultry, and fish from abroad will increase by 170,000 tons a year.
What the government has done, Western analysts say, is to create a new subsidy, and yet greater strains on government resources. It has committed itself to a greater supply of meat at a fixed price, although import costs continue to rise.
The budget that began July 1 showed that the difference between domestic selling prices and actual import costs has risen to $2.2 billion, slightly more than half the total projected budget deficit. As the deficit grows, the government is forced to borrow from the domestic banking system -- thereby accelerating inflation.
In addition, butchers are skeptical that the new fixed prices will work. "It all depends on the wholesalers," says a butcher in Saida Zeinab, "but what might happen is that the butchers will open for the Eid al-Adha [a Muslim feast when meat consumption soars] and then close down again , because it is not profitable to sell."
In spite of its mixed success, the decree illustrates the seriousness of President Sadat's concern to show the public, particularly lower fixed-income groups, that he is doing something to alleviate their economic difficulties.
But the public, contending with the chaos on Saad Zaghloul Street and witnessing rising prices in the face of government action intended to lower them , is widely skeptical.
"If I could speak to President Sadat," says a taxi driver on his way down Muski Street, "I would tell him, 'You made a ban on meat. But now the price of chicken, fish, and eggs has gone up. This is not right.'"
"But the 'kubaar' [great ones]," a passenger in the back seat shot in angrily , "like Mamdouh Salem [a former prime minister], they have meat. It's only people like us who suffer."