Egyptians face food hardship after protests
By Sherine El Madany
For now, Ibrahim finds life even harder than before.
Days of rejoicing followed Mubarak’s resignation last week but now Egyptians replenishing their food supplies are finding empty shelves or hugely inflated prices.
Prices of food and drink already soared 18 percent year-on-year last month while Ibrahim’s salary stagnated.
As protestors chanted for Mubarak’s removal, other Egyptians could be seen piling up shopping carts with emergency provisions and heaving bags full of the country’s staple brown beans home from markets before a nighttime curfew.
“Prices rose even higher through the days of protests as everyone has been stocking up during the curfew,” said Ibrahim.
This is an extra headache for authorities eager to restore confidence in an economy hit by strikes and bank closures.
The pressure to guarantee food supplies is great given Egypt’s history of sporadic bread riots which led the army to intervene on occasions to ensure calm or distribute supplies.
Egypt relies on imports for at least half of domestic consumption and the revolution came as global food prices, as tracked by a U.N. agency, hit their highest on record in January.
Shoppers said the latest price surge came amid panic buying of essential goods on fears of future shortages. Merchants also blame a rise in the cost of transport.
“Prices have gone up for both merchants and buyers,” said Omm Mahmoud, who sells fruit and vegetables in a Cairo suburb. “It now costs me more to have my goods transported from the farms to the city, and I have to pass on those costs.”
If prices aren’t a problem, then supplies are.
“In state-run shops grocery prices are reasonable but supply is not enough,” said 53-year old housewife Magda Hussein. “They run out of items quickly, so I have to purchase the rest of my groceries from stores that charge about double the price.”
Like other protesters, Ibrahim blames higher living costs on Mubarak, who ruled a country where a fifth of the population lives on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations.
Ibrahim brought his children to Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the heart of the revolution in Cairo, several times to learn about the value of democracy.
“I know that living costs and unemployment could rise, but that is a price I am willing to pay for the success of the revolution. I want my children to live in a free country,” he said.
PAIN TO LAST
John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi, said Mubarak fell due to rising inequality, high unemployment and very high inflation. “Food inflation will continue to be the biggest concern,” he said. “People … will not maybe buy a car but they will still have to eat.”
Global prices are set to stay high after a massive snowstorm in the United States and floods in Australia.
Beltone investment bank indicated the suffering in Egypt was likely to continue. “This spike in prices is set to continue into February and perhaps subsequent months, although this will largely depend on the unfolding political situation,” it said in a research note.
Sfakianakis expects Egypt’s food inflation to continue rising in 2011 to reach about 20 percent year-on-year, and said it would be difficult for Egypt to curb prices because globally they are likely to remain high this year.
The situation won’t be helped by a drop in the Egyptian pound that makes imported goods even dearer and adds further strain to the government’s import subsidy bill.
“We … believe that global food prices will add to upward inflationary pressures, although the government will continue to increase subsidies when required on basic goods to keep prices stable,” said investment bank EFG-Hermes.