The ongoing anti-government protests on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities represent the biggest public demonstration in the country since the famous ‘bread riots’ which occurred exactly 34 years ago. The current riots, while more dedicated to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, are also partially incited by rising food prices.
On January 18-19 of 1977, hundreds of thousands of most poor Egyptians went to the streets to protest the termination of state subsidies of basic food items, as mandated by terms of an agreement with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. At least 800 people were killed in the two days of turmoil, which came to an end only after the army was sent in to restore order and the state cancelled the policy.
The riots actually were born of attempts by then-President Anwar Sadat to liberalize the economy. After seeking loans from the World Bank to alleviate the country’s debt, the bank demanded that Sadat end his policy of food subsidies. Consequently, the government terminated subsidies on not only bread, but also, flour, cooking oil and rights. Sadat also terminated bonuses and pay hikes for state employees.
Sadat would be assassinated four years later, paving the way for the current leader, Mubarak.
In Cairo’s Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper, Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri, a memner of the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya), an anti-government group, said: Since the 1977 bread riots political awareness among the people has been in decline. However, they have been restoring it step by step of late. Even pilgrims organised sit-in strikes during the pilgrimage season in Mecca, and strikes have been organised by civil servants, unheard of in Egypt's modern history.
Ammar Ali Hassan, director of the Middle East Studies and Research Centre, told the paper: “The atmosphere that prevailed before and during the 1977 bread riots is similar to now, especially in that there is no confidence in the government. The desire to protest has overwhelmed a large sector of society.
Hassan added that while current living conditions in Egypt are “much worse than in 1997, the ordinary Egyptian nowadays is unable to stage wide protests because he has become fragile. Egyptians in 1977 were more politicised than now and the regime's security grip was less strong.”
However, Mohamed Kamal, member of the ruling National Democratic Party's Policies Committee, told Al-Ahram that the current riots are not so extraordinary, and will not cause any social upheaval.
Egyptian society is going through a period of political and economic mobility,” he said. “Our society is witnessing an unprecedented degree of freedom of expression, and it's normal for societies in a state of transition to experience what's happening in Egypt.
Kamal also noted that the Egyptian is not responsible for the rise in food prices, which is happening across the developing world.
The government continues to subsidise basic foodstuffs, and at the same time increases salaries, the problem is that the increase in salaries hasn't matched inflation, he said.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.