Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (660)
Loaf of life
Egypt was the first country to make bread. Not surprisingly, says Professor Yunan Labib Rizk, it was also the first country to have bread-related problems
Bread has gained considerable renown in the history of humankind for being the primary source of nourishment sustaining people. Its reputation has been underlined on various occasions, the most prominent of which was the demonstration that started in Paris on 8 October 1789 and ended in Versailles, the headquarters of King Louis XVI. In this demonstration, a handful of hungry women cried out, pleading for bread. This was the first spark that set alight the French revolution, the largest popular revolt in modern history.
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An essential commodity for all Egyptians, bread is distributed even in the most difficult of conditions
As for Egypt, it is well-known that it was the first country to have bread and it can even be said that it invented this kind of nourishment. It is also well-known that the first appearance of a class of bakers was in Egypt, and as Pharaonic antiquities show, Egyptians had loaves of bread at an early period. The Egyptian Antiquities Department in the British Museum has a piece of real bread that is 5,000 years old, as well as wheat grains that were planted during the summer seasons in the Pharaonic age.
And thus it is not unusual for bread to have been associated with work. In Egypt there is the saying "earning one's daily bread," which means to undertake work, and "to cut off one's source of bread," implying deprivation of work. It has also been associated with other characteristics, such as when it is said that "so-and-so ate bread and salt with so-and-so," implying companionship and allegiance.
The standing bread held in the life of Egyptians has remained in place throughout history. Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti's book Ajaaib Al-Althaar fi Al-Taraajim Wal-Akhbar [The wonders of the vestiges of biographies and events] addresses lengthy stretches of Ottoman history and provides an eyewitness to the arrival of the French expedition and the first years of the rule of Mohamed Ali. This book is filled with records of numerous events related to bread, including what took place on 17 October 1803. El-Gabarti wrote:
"The situation of grain inverted and reversed to a despicable state. They officially priced grain at six riyals per ardeb [a local measurement equalling 156 kilogrammes] and grain owners could not sell their grain except by permission from the superintendent after he took half, or a third, or a quarter of the grain, according to his weakness or strength, for no price. If someone of high standing wished to purchase, he first secretly went and presented interests and gifts to the home of the superintendent. At such time he granted him permission for his request, and they measured out grain for him at night. He arrived at the shore late, near noon, and people and the poor went and waited for him. When he arrived, they crowded around him. Flatterers and those with connections approached him first, and this was permitted to them, and he took a riyal from them for each ardeb. The superintendent took it for himself, an increase over the price and cost, which was approximately 50 fida before the fee. The poor left without anything.
"They let the inspector take 400 ardeb every day, 200 of which were for the bakers and 200 of which were to be put in courtyards within the city. He took this to his home and they put nothing in the courtyards. Of the 200, he gave to the bakers 50 ardeb or 60, and sold the rest to his own interest at night for the price he desired. And thus the people raised a clamour and bread became scarce in the market. Some people addressed the top princes on this matter. The situation remained thus until the end of the month; the situation was strained. The soldiers and Mamelukes gained the upper hand in snatching whatever grain they came across. Anyone who bought some could not pass with it, even if only a little. If a mount carrying grain arrived from the north or south, they took it and plundered all that was there. This was one of the causes of want and scourge."
Despite the establishment of the centralised state at the hands of Mohamed Ali during the first half of the 19th century, bread crises continued to take place albeit spread out over time. Sometimes the pasha himself contributed to them, such as when he exported large quantities of grain to Europe through the monopolisation policy he followed. Yet despite its importance, bread remained in the hands of the people, or the private sector in today's parlance. The government intervened in some cases to provide flour when its crises grew severe by importing large quantities of it, but its intervention never surpassed that.
The situation remained thus until the end of July 1937, when the Ministry of Commerce and Industry drafted a law to regulate the trade of flour and the production and trade of bread. "This was after the republic had noisily complained about the forms of swindling some of those working in the trade of flour and bread had resorted to," as the draft's introduction read.
Its opening defined flour as "the product resulting from the grinding of wheat free of foreign substances and not mixed with wheat from any other kind of grain or legume. As for bread, it is the product resulting from baking leavened dough made of flour, water and yeast, with or without salt."
Following this definition, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry's draft law laid down the conditions that must be met by mill and bakery owners before beginning operation. Their names and addresses were required, and conditions were set for flour, which was classified into four types -- top-grade flour, in which the percentage of gelatin was no less than six per cent; first-grade flour, in which the percentage of gelatin was no less than five per cent; second-grade flour, in which the percentage of gelatin was no less than 4.5 per cent; and third-grade flour, in which the percentage of gelatin was no less than 4.5 per cent and in which an increase of moisture and cellulose was permissible.
The draft law prohibited the sale of flour not conforming to these defined types. It also barred stores trading in flour from selling any other kind. As for bakeries, the draft law stated that they could not produce bread from any kind of mixed flour. It classified bread as top-grade bread produced with top-grade flour, fine bread produced with first-grade flour, and coarse bread produced with second-grade flour.
The draft law also mandated the selling of bread by weight and for "there to be a scale for this purpose in a visible space in the shop." Likewise, anyone who transported bread for sale or delivery to homes or shops had to carry a scale, and the police commissioner was allowed to take samples of bread and send it to the chemistry laboratory. A fine ranging between LE5 and LE100 and imprisonment of no more than a year, or just one of these punishments, was imposed in cases of violating the articles of this law.
This draft law was the first legislated intervention in the production of bread in Egypt. Those who drafted it fancied that it would solve the problem of bread forever, but they were deluded. A new crisis soon grabbed Egyptians by the collar, the crisis that exploded in the beginning of the following year, 1938.
UNDER THE HEADLINE "The high cost of grain and bread prices", Al-Ahram published a letter directed to the minister of commerce in its 30 January 1938 issue. It was written by a reader called Abdel-Meguid El-Ramali, who spoke in the name of bakery owners. In it he spoke of the phenomenon that had revisited the grain market, leading to an increase in the price of this product. This was the result of a rumour stating that the stored wheat would not suffice consumption until the new season "and so grain traders have stopped offering wheat in the markets and the price has risen to 165 piastres for Indian wheat and 155 piastres for native wheat."
El-Ramali then went on to say that it was natural that in this situation bakery owners would raise the price of bread or suffer real losses if they sold it at the previous price. Keen not to harm poor consumers, he called for Egypt's government to count the quantity of grain stored in the storehouses of banks and elsewhere "precisely so that we can know the exact quantity. If it becomes clear that there is enough for the country's consumption until the end of the season, the ministry can announce that to the public, and thus dissipate the notion that there is not enough of a yield and put an end to this fabricated increase."
This letter was the first sign of a new bread crisis created by traders. Its features grew sharper with the passage of time, and on 15 February, Al-Ahram wrote about a rise in the public's complaints about the increased price of bread, which had gone up by a total of two millemes for an oqa [a local measurement equalling 1.248kg] of coarse brown native bread and four millemes for an oqa of white Levantine bread. This was a large sum in a country in which people dealt with the tender of ashreen khurda (half a milleme).
In response, a bakery owner called Ali Abdel-Muati attempted to justify the reason for this rise. He attributed it to the increased price of wheat and flour, an ardeb of which had risen to 160 piastres rather than 120. He demanded that the Ministry of Commerce reveal the true reason for the rise of prices -- a crop shortage or the fraud of major traders. It was requested that the administration authorities offer a response, leading the capital's governor, Abdel-Salam El-Shazli, to take two decisions. The first was to make the price of special first- grade bread 18 millemes per oqa; the second was that it weigh 32 oqiya [a local measurement equalling 37.44g]. The governor of Alexandria, Mohamed Hussein Pasha, called for the formation of a 16-member committee representing owners of wheat and mills, as well as retail merchants and bakery owners, with a total of four members per group to "study the situation and offer an opinion."
With the harbingers of a crisis appearing in this manner, Al-Ahram sent one of its editors to seek the opinions of economic experts and he reached the following conclusions. Firstly, the price of bread had been set on a day in which the price of an ardeb of wheat was 200 piastres, or at least 180. These prices then dropped, reaching 120 piastres, and yet the price of bread remained put. Some of these economic experts viewed the rise in prices as resulting from some bakery owners mixing their products with rice flour, whose price had recently risen. Secondly, some bakery owners claimed that the price of wheat had risen due to the export of large quantities of it abroad. This was denied by an official source who assured that the wheat crop in Egypt had produced 8.3 million ardeb, while local consumption did not exceed 7.5 million, resulting in a surplus of 500,000 ardeb.
As the picture clarified in this manner, the minister of finance, Ismail Sidqi Pasha, intervened, giving a statement dominated by a tone of threat. In it, he stated that the reasons traders were falling back on raising the price of bread had no basis in reality, and as such the ministry would take measures to rectify the situation.
Before long, the man revealed his plan, which was to obtain the agreement of the cabinet to import a certain quantity of Australian wheat. This made mill owners rush to the papers, calling on the minister to wait a little before taking this intended measure. They claimed that importing Australian wheat and offering it for 125 piastres per ardeb would bring them losses because they had previously bought stored wheat at the higher price of 130 piastres per ardeb in addition to approximately 10 piastres for the costs of storage and transport.
In response to this, the minister of finance decided to monitor the situation for the next few days until it became clear that prices were either continuing to rise or not decreasing to a reasonable level, at which time the decision to import wheat from abroad would be implemented. The ministry continued its pressure, issuing instructions to food inspection teams to focus their interest on taking samples of flour and bread from mills, bakeries and merchants, and to hasten in presenting offences related to the adulterating of flour to the courts.
At about the same time in Alexandria, the chamber of commerce met and its treasurer stated that the high cost of wheat and bread had no basis in reality. It demanded that the government advise banks to oblige traders to hand over the deals they had purchased from producers and to keep them for a short, determined time, rather than benefit from the interest made on them. It also demanded that the preliminary measures be taken to purchase the required amounts of foreign wheat "so that if those manoeuvring continue and prices rise, it can be distributed to mills at a price in keeping with the interests of consumers."
In Port Said, policemen began to enforce this pricing, and issued 66 subpoenas to violators in one day. In Beni Sweif, the deputy head of the directorate held a meeting with merchants to discuss the issue. And in Girga, a kilah [a local measurement equalling 13 kilogrammes] of wheat was sold for between 20 and 22 piastres "and so the public complained of this spurious rise in price."
From words to deeds, the Ministry of Finance agreed with Khawaga Emile Eid, the owner of the mill company, to stop exporting wheat and for his company to grind it and sell it to bakery owners for 120 piastres per sack. It should be distributed to bakeries to sell an oqa of bread weighing 32 oqiya for 15 millemes. Then the governorate agreed with 13 bakeries to sell an oqa of bread weighing 32 oqiya at this price, although it differentiated between fresh and cracker bread, making an oqa of bread weigh in at only 29 oqiya.
This drove some bakery owners to approach the governorate with requests to join the bakeries this flour would be distributed to. After an initial rejection, officials agreed to add 14 other bakeries so that the total became 27 that were "closely monitored to prevent any fraudulence or adulteration". Alexandria Governorate followed the example of Cairo Governorate in applying this policy.
Despite these measures, not a week passed before consumers were taken by surprise when the cost of bread increased by half a milleme for the price of an oqa to reach 15 and a half millemes in the bakeries that had made agreements with the governorate. The governorate, in turn, justified this increase as resulting from its purchase of a large quantity of wheat from Kom Ombo, which is more expensive than other wheat due to its high quality.
While the number of bakeries Cairo Governorate made agreements with increased until reaching 61 new bakeries, complaints also increased among those bakery owners concerning the behaviour of the governorate employees. There were complaints about favouritism, and the fact that among nine bakeries in a single area cooperating with the governorate, five belonged to the same family, the Turk family. Another complaint from a bakery owner in Al-Gamaliya was that after the governorate had made an agreement with him to supply him with flour in order to sell at a decreased price, it failed to provide it. A third complaint from a reader in Cairo was about the poor quality of bread, which he attributed to the many ingredients bakers added to the flour.
DESPITE OFFICIALS refuting the content of these complaints, the following month, April 1938, witnessed a number of governmental concessions the administration made, one after another.
Al-Ahram published news of the first concession in its 4 April 1938 edition. It stated that governorate officials had approved bakery owners mixing native brown wheat with 25 per cent corn flour "because this amount will not affect the nutritional property found in the wheat." The only condition to this concession was that the percentage of corn flour not exceed that determined.
The second concession was agreement to set the price of a sack of flour mixed with corn flour by the percentage agreed upon and weighing 80 oqas at 140 piastres. This was a 20- piastre increase over that previously agreed upon for the price of pure corn flour.
The third concession was for the price of an oqa of mixed bread flour to be 16 and a half millemes. This was an increase of a whole milleme over the previous price and reached the price of an oqa of pure corn flour.
This is what took place in Cairo. As for Alexandria, the situation did not differ much. Yet shortly following the implementation of the governorate's plan to set the price of an oqa of bread at 15 millemes, it lost its effectiveness. Bakery owners decreased the size of loaves and mixed flour with other ingredients "that lowered the nutritional value and which were not permissible to mix with." Al-Ahram witnessed this with a sample of bread a reader from the port city sent to it.
Under these circumstances, the minister of finance held that the matter should not be left any longer to the governors. He announced in a statement before the council of representatives on 21 April that the government would begin distributing quantities of good quality native wheat and Australian wheat to Alexandrian bakeries and particularly those in poor neighbourhoods. He stated that the amounts of wheat it had obtained were "sufficient to stabilise low prices until the new wheat yield appears in the market".
At the same time, Cairo Governorate issued an announcement stating that it had received quantities of the new wheat and that it was prepared to hand over to bakery owners a sack of wheat weighing 80 oqa at the price of 140 piastres. Those wishing to purchase were directed to specific shops to buy at the mentioned price -- the stores of Emile Eid in Al-Khazandar Square, and Thabit Basta in Al-Sabtiya.
In the same optimistic tone, Cairo's governor told an Al-Ahram reporter that a quantity of the wheat flour had reached some of the merchants on the cornice of Rod Al-Farag. He further stated that the government had impounded an amount of Australian wheat that "some steamboats were transporting to other kingdoms, and with this the wheat crisis has begun to relax."
The same tone was heard in Alexandria, where the governorate announced that the Ministry of Finance had agreed with one of the mills in Cairo to prepare a quantity of Kom Ombo wheat and Australian wheat for the city. "It is said that the Kom Ombo wheat will be provided mixed with corn at a proportion of 25 per cent, to be mixed with the Australian wheat so that the amount of corn will be 15 per cent."
Two days later, Al-Ahram published a lengthy transmission from its special reporter in the port city titled "Calming of the bread crisis in Alexandria." It stated that the bread crisis had calmed "as the new flour has begun to be distributed among the city's bakeries. Nearly 200 bags have been distributed, and the governorate has issued instructions for the monitoring of the sale of bread." The rest of the news was not happy, however. The price had been set at 17 millemes per oqa. It had been desired to make the price 15 millemes, but the price of the imported wheat exceeded expectations and this called for increasing it by two millemes. This news item then complicated the matter all the more when Al-Ahram 's reporter pointed out that bakers were selling coarse native brown bread to the public for 22 millemes per oqa.
It was under these circumstances that more bad news arrived from Alexandria. Workers in the native brown bread bakeries had met at the headquarters of the General Workers Union in order to discuss their situation. They had decided to approach the governorate to discuss the demands they had submitted for a wage increase, fewer working hours and a paid monthly vacation "out of mercy for them and their miserable families."
Soon these protests turned into action when bakery workers in Cairo went on strike on 9 May 1938 and attacked some of the bakeries to urge their colleagues to participate -- the bakeries of Mohamed Said in Bab Al-She'riya, Mohamed El-Sayed Iyad in Al-Sayufiya, and Youssef Gadallah in Darb Al-Husr. Following the spread of such strikes, the board of the union met and decided to demand that the government act quickly to bring justice to the class of bakers. "Some owners of national bakeries went to the union headquarters and made agreements with these workers to meet their demands."
While Cairo and Alexandria were witnessing these provocative events, other cities were undergoing similar incidents. This was the topic of reports sent to Al-Ahram by its correspondents.
In Port Said, the canal's governor attempted to confront the crisis by ordering the seizure of 60 tonnes of Australian flour that had arrived in the port, on the basis that "water does not get past the thirsty." The Ministry of Finance met his directive by mixing in 20 tonnes of corn flour and distributing it to bakeries at the price of 140 piastres per sack of 80 oqa, on the condition that an oqa be sold to the public for 18 millemes.
In the public market of Shibin Al-Qanatir the people rejoiced when the price of a kilah of corn dropped to 10 piastres and a kilah of wheat to 16. "They breathed a sigh of relief with the end to this crisis of aggravating high prices." In Suez, the governorate received 400 bags of flour, each weighing 80 oqa, and distributed it to bakeries and the public at a price set at 140 piastres per bag.
Despite all these preventive measures, however, it can be said with confidence that the government failed to hold back the rising price of bread. This led Cairo Governorate to take new measures, the most significant of which was announcing its readiness to rent some of the bakeries and supervise their management. This can be described as a first step towards "public sector bread". An announcement to this effect was published in early October 1938, and a number of bakery owners submitted their requests to this end, justifying their resort to this means by the losses they had sustained due to mill owners raising the price of a sack of wheat from 120 piastres to 150, which forced them to raise the price of an oqa by a milleme or two.
The Cairo Governorate imagined that by taking this step it would succeed in halting the rise of bread prices. This can be determined by the statement it issued on 4 October, in which it announced to bakery owners that if the price of an oqa was no longer 15 milleme, it would be forced to open government bakeries and "supply the public with bread and protect it from this spurious price hike and sell it for less than 15 millemes."
Yet government efforts in this regard came to no avail, a fact that is realised in that only a few days passed following the governorate's announcement when the authorities raised the white flag. They agreed to sell an oqa of bread produced with wheat flour mixed with rice flour for 15 millemes and to large households for 18 millemes. This was tantamount to recognition of the latter price, and was not the first or last time that "those with interests" won out over the authorities.