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Egypt's bread: Morsi kneads life into subsidised staple
When it comes to improving the quality and availability of the poor's staple food, Morsi's 100-day initiatives have been more than half-baked, say observers
Marwa Hussein, Monday 8 Oct 2012
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Bread queue
Give us our daily bread - at 5 piastres a loaf (Photo: Reuters)

Improving the quality and availability of state-subsidised bread was one of the key, populist pledges in President Morsi's 100-day programme. It's also the one where the most progress seems to have been made.

In Egyptian Arabic, the words for bread and life are synonymous – and it's hard to overstate the importance of this food staple to the country's people. 

Thanks to state intervention, the price of bread has remained unchanged since the early 1980s. Five piastres buy a disc-shaped six-inch loaf. Just one Egyptian pound – 16 cents – can provide enough to feed a small family for a day.

But there have long been serious complaints about its provision by the government. Many consumers say the size of loaves is too small and that they are barely edible. Some even report finding carpentry nails or burned out cigarettes baked into the bread.

Supplies are inconsistent too. At certain times of year, shortages of breadmaking materials and ovens can mean long queues form in front of bakeries, generating outrage against the government. 

Providing good quality, subsidised bread seems a clear way to win the hearts of large swathes of Egypt's public, and Morsi and his advisors haven't missed the opportunity.

"Solving the problem of inedible, subsidised bread doesn’t need new funds. We just want to end corruption and bribes – that’s my responsibility,” Morsi said during his electoral campaign.

And the new president seems to have succeeded, according to both his own interpretation and those of several industry players. 

"Eighty per cent of the targets aiming at ending bread shortages were achieved," Morsi declared on Saturday during a speech given at Cairo Stadium to make the 39th anniversary of the October War.

In none of the four other key pledges – traffic, security, cooking gas, garbage collection – did Morsi claim as much success. So how did he do it?

As with the other issues Morsi promised to tackle, the solution to improving bread quality is a complicated, multi-faceted one.

Egypt's government has traditionally held down bread prices by both importing and locally buying massive amounts of wheat then supplying state-sponsored bakeries with flour to produce the staple.

But it accuses bakeries of betraying its trust and selling the flour to the black market rather than baking with it. Such a move would garner a bakery much more than the sum it gets from the government for producing loaves.

Bakeries, for their part, have blamed shortfalls in production of shortages of diesel and administrative decisions to close certain bakeries for contravening legislation.

While Morsi's estimation of his success in reforming the system might be a little exaggerated,  it's undeniable that the last three months have seen some progress.

"The target was to produce better subsidised bread and to make it commonly accessible. This was achieved and that matters more than counting the procedures undertaken," says Ahmed Issa, the official in charge of the presidency's so-called "bread file".

According to Issa, of the 13 steps they listed to solve the bread problem, 9 were achieved. Among them were the key goals of increasing bakery productivity and nutritional value of the loaves, standardising weights, and increasing benefits for bakers.

Farag Wahba, head of the bakeries division in Egypt's Federation of Commerce, says he is quite satisfied with Morsi's progress.

He confirms that orders were given to improve bread quality and were followed through. Now around 60 per cent of flour used is better quality Egyptian product while the rest is imported.

"We also stopped using corn flour for baking, but that was because of the hike in corn prices," Wahba added. "That made the bread better but has nothing to do with the president's plan."

Issa, the administration's bread-man, cites figures that suggest bread quality has improved in at least 70 per cent of outlets.

"In some places the quality is still not good enough but it is a success," he says.

Queues outside bakeries producing subsidised bread also appear to have waned, points out Wahba, following the reopening of outlets previously closed by the government.

"We opened all the public 'mega-bakeries' and made them functional whether they belong to the army, the police or the public sector," confirms Issa, who says one large-scale outlet was key to the whole endeavour.

One mega-bakery which produced a half-million loaves each day previously saw all its state-supplied flour sold to the black market, Issa says. By properly monitoring production there, Egypt's bread production got a substantial boost.

"With this bakery alone, any shortage anywhere can be tackled immediately," Issa said.

Frequent inspection campaigns by the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade have also stemmed the leakage of flour to the black market, leading to an increase in bread production.

But Issa doesn't put all the blame on the bakeries, suggesting financial pressures played a part in their previous behaviour.

"Some 50 per cent of the subsidised bread used to be sold in the black market because of the lack of the supervision," Issa says. "But it was because the price the government is paying the bakeries to make the bread is unfair."

That looks set to change soon, says Wahba, who expresses satisfaction that the government is now in discussions with bakeries over the price it will pay them to produce bread.

"We should reach an agreement in a few days. Since 2006 the price was fixed at LE65 for each 100 kg produced – that will change soon," said Wahba.  

Not everyone is convinced of Morsi's success. A website – Morsimeter.com – which documents the president's progress has been harsher. It deems that only one of the 13 steps in his bread programme has been achieved – the use of flour of higher nutritional value – while five other points, which the president has declared complete, are still being worked on.

Still untackled, shows the Morsimeter, are promises to start using natural gas in bakeries, which would help reduce fuel costs and limit pollution, and to implement a rewards system for bakeries which have demonstrably improved their performances.

Reforms haven't stopped, Issa counters, telling Ahram Online that the government's next step is to shake up production by subsidising the final product – the loaf – rather than the flour. A pilot project will be implemented in Port Said, he says.

An earlier plan to introduce a new category of subsidised bread for 10 piastres, sold alongside the existing 5 pts loaves has been shelved due to fears of sparking popular anger.

"There will be no increase of bread prices which can prompty social instabilities. Subsidised bread will remain at 5 piastres," Issa says.



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