Egypt’s food shortage a bitter blow to all social classes

Complaints about a shortage of basic goods have been echoing across the country

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Egypt could be plunging into a food crisis or at least this is how it seems. Complaints about a shortage of basic goods have been echoing across the country and reached their peak with the lack of sugar supplies in many stores. Such complaints varied according to social class for while the upper middle class is affected by the remarkable decrease of imported goods, which might seem a luxury for average citizens, the working class is voicing its discontent about the soaring prices of local foodstuffs. True, coconut milk, chocolate chip cookies, and salmon are not in any way comparable to food needed for survival, but the wide-ranging effect of the crisis across different echelons of the Egyptian society denotes a serious problem. Added to that is the fact that the relatively affluent are also starting to complain about food prices, which had always been unlikely to happen.

While the crisis included a substantial number of foodstuffs, nothing equaled the problem triggered by lack of sugar in the Egyptian market. According to Raafat Rezeika, head of the Sugar Division at the Federation of Egyptian Industries, the sugar crisis is directly connected to the dollar shortage.

“The unavailability of dollars made importing sugar much harder and created a parallel market where the price of available sugar doubled,” he said. What aggravated the situation, he added, was the government crackdown on several warehouses owned by traders who hoarded large amounts of sugar and who were blamed for intensifying the crisis. “The government confiscated all the sugar they had so there was practically no one selling sugar.”

Shawki Serag al-Din, head of planning at the Delta Sugar Company, accused the government of taking part in the crisis. “We had 37,000 tons in our warehouses and the state-owned Food Industries Holding Company bought them for LE 4,500 per ton, that is LE 4.5 per kilo. Then the company asked to buy the sugar of the new season with the same price without taking into consideration that the cost has increased for us,” he said, noting that the kilo is then sold for LE 7. “The cost of one ton is now LE 6,000. Who is going to pay the difference? How can we pay farmers for their crops? And how can we pay workers’ wages?,” he added. Serag al-Din pointed out that the chairman of the Delta Sugar Company Abdel Hamid Salama, resigned for this reason.

Farag Amer, chairman of the Egyptian Food Company, said the several food industries are about to close down because of the shortage of basic commodities. “None of the food factories is working with full capacity because there is a shortage in basic materials such as sugar, oil, and marjoram,” he said. Amer complained that the Food Industries Holding Company is not providing factories with sugar because it keeps raising its prices. “Now one kilo of local sugar is LE 10 and imported sugar is no longer available,” he added. “The prices of flour have also soared insanely.” Amer dismissed rumors that business owners are the reason behind the crisis. “Honest business owners are highly suffering now.”

A rice crisis started emerging as the government decided to reduce land plots in which rice is cultivated due to a shortage of water and imposing fines on violating farmers. Former Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Nasr Allam said that rice consumes large amounts of water and it was necessary to limit the number of lands where rice is cultivated. “Egypt does not have enough water for all this rice. Two years ago we had around 2.5 million acres of rice which is insane,” he said, adding Egypt is on the verge of a drought. Allam noted that he is against calls by several MPs to lift the fines on farmers who exceed the limit and which amounts to LE 3,000 per acre.

The rice crisis was aggravated by disputes between rice farmers and the government over the prices of rice. According to Agriculture Export Council member Samir al-Naggary, the devaluation of the Egyptian pound led most of the farmers to see the prices offered by the government as unfair. “This drove many farmers to sell to traders for LE 3,000 instead of the state-affiliated Public Authority for Supply, which insisted on only 2,400,” he said. “Even the few farmers who agreed on the state’s price retracted because of terms of payment that they viewed as unfair.” Meanwhile, the Ministry of Supplies also announced raising the price of rice by 18 percent.

Atef Yaacoub, head of the Consumer Protection Agency, launched a campaign entitled Abstain from Buying. “All Egyptians should boycott all commodities for one day on December 1 to deliver a strong message to traders who raise prices that they will not surrender to their greed,” he said. “One day will not be a problem for citizens, but will be a huge loss for traders.” According to Yaacoub, the campaign will put pressure on traders to decrease their profit margin as part of their contribution to alleviating the impact of the crisis. Yaacoub stressed that he launched this campaign not as the chairman of the Consumer Protection Agency, but as a regular citizen, saying “it is, therefore, a civil society campaign.” The campaign was endorsed by the Citizens against Rising Prices Association, which shared Yaacoub’s view that traders are the main cause of the crisis.

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