When it comes to eating bread, Egyptians don't loaf around

Egypt is one country where nobody needs to go hungry. People can always eat the world's cheapest bread. A loaf of round, unleavened Arab bread costs one piaster, equal to one American penny. Even this is twice the old price, which held from the 1952 revolution until about 1980.

Remembering the riots in 1977 after attempts to remove some food subsidies, the government increased the price of bread very gingerly. Over several years the government-controlled bakeries began to produce a new, higher-quality, one-piaster loaf. The old half-piaster loaves grew steadily smaller, poorer tasting, with flour of ever more inferior quality. By the time the half-piaster bread vanished altogether, almost all Egyptians had willingly switched to the one-piaster loaf.

But this price is now sacrosanct - and with good reason. Bread is Egypt's staple. A poor Egyptian is likely to eat an average of three loaves of bread a day, estimated to provide him with 71 percent of both his calories and his proteins. Since Egypt's 1976-81 economic boom, consumption of meat, sugar, fish, milk, and eggs has soared 20 to 70 percent.

But the poorest Cairene's diet is still mainly bread, with beans and a few vegetables. The Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome says the 2,800 calories eaten daily by the average Egyptian are nutritionally adequate.

Not everyone agrees. One Egyptian, quoted this assertion, exclaimed with indignation, ''Beans, beans! Always you want us to eat beans!''

To keep the one-piastre bread price, the Egyptian government pays for about four-fifths of each loaf of bread. It also partly subsidizes such essential commodities as rice, cooking oil, and sugar. The food subsidy bill is expected to surpass $1.6 billion in 1984, close to three times what it was 10 years ago.

The International Monetary Fund has long opposed the subsidies, its Washington-based economists arguing that they distort the economy, hold back growth, and slow investment.

Maybe so. But in Egypt the political benefits of income redistribution and social security seem to make sense.

About one-third of what an Egyptian eats is subsidized. In a country where per capita gross national product is still just $654, the poorest fifth of Cairo's families spend about 10 percent of their meager budgets on bread. Nonsubsidized food such as meat has gone sky-high. Chicken is now $3 a kilogram, lamb $7, and beef, which orthodox Muslims like to eat every Thursday night, has gone to $5.

Food subsidies are just part of Egypt's larger consumer welfare program which subsidizes energy, transportation, housing, and a few nonfood consumer goods like soap and cloth.

Most foreign experts would like to see an end to the energy subsidy, which will be close to $3 billion this year. But again it provides a lot of hidden income to the poor (cheap bus and train fares, cheap electricity so even the humblest mudhuts can have TV, low overhead to hold prices down).

Cairo is probably the last place on earth where you can get a fairly tasty, nourishing, and filling meal for the equivalent of 10 cents. This meal includes two half-slabs of Arab bread filled with ful or cooked broadbeans, ta'amia or baked balls of breadcrumbs, and a little tomato and lettuce salad. There is also a half-size diet lunch for a nickel.

Few Egyptians do diet. They are now consuming more bread per day - close to a pound per person - than anybody in history is known to have consumed. Per capita wheat consumption has grown from 160 pounds in 1960 to over 340 pounds today per year, compared to 140 pounds for the average American.

With so much dependence on bread, the country that was the granary of the Roman Empire and just 10 years ago fed itself, now imports half of its food. President Hosni Mubarak will import 6 million tons of wheat this year, just a fourth of it on easy terms as part of American aid.

Egypt could grow its own wheat. But it doesn't pay them to do so. For example , in 1973 the government tried to introduce the high-yield, Mexican-bred dwarf wheat that has tripled and quadrupled outputs in Asia. It didn't catch on because in Egypt long-stemmed straw to feed livestock can be more valuable than grain.

As long as the peasants themselves get plenty of cheap, subsidized bread to eat - and village bakeries have spread fast in recent years - they, too, accept the status quo.

In Egypt the maxim for keeping everybody happy seems to be: Let them eat bread.

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