The Price of Bread

LIFE on Cairo's churning streets is never easy. But it has become a little more difficult for the city's millions of poor over the last year as the government phased in higher bread prices. Twelve months ago the typical small, flat loaf cost about a penny. Now it's up to two cents. When families are large and monthly salaries small - often less than Americans pay for a meal out - even a one-cent increase in the cost of a staple is troublesome. And the trouble can spill over into politics. The discontent fed by more expensive bread gives opponents of the government, particularly the highly active Islamic fundamentalists, a potent grass-roots issue.

If it had been strictly Egypt's choice, the price hike might have come even more gradually, if ever. But behind the move was the International Monetary Fund (the ``fund of misery,'' as President Mubarak puts it). The IMF demands sounder economic practices before Egypt can get the new loans it badly needs. Government subsidies - including cheap bread - had to give way.

Remarkably, the Egyptian people, as diligent and patient as any on Earth, have so far tolerated their burden.

A similar process is seen in other parts of the world, where the poverty is far less grinding, but the politics are just as volatile. In Czechoslovakia, for example, the price of food just went up. Rye bread shot up 60 percent to 26 cents a loaf. Grumbles were heard. But people seemed to recognize that sacrifice is needed to put the country back on a solid economic footing.

In the Soviet Union, by contrast, the government's plan to jack up the price of bread by slicing away state subsidies never got off the ground. Warnings of popular revolt went up. Critics said the plan was ill-conceived. But there was also a feeling its purpose was misperceived - that the Soviet people had little idea what good their sacrifice would produce.

A few cents difference per loaf, clearly, can say a lot about a people's political culture and their government's ability to communicate.

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