Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 January 2008
Issue No. 881
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Memories of 1977

Do public protests about the increased cost of basic commodities have overtones of the bread riots more than three decades ago, asks Mohamed El-Sayed

Egyptians are generally not rebellious people though when their stomachs are empty the government should beware. That, at least, is the feeling of many commentators who felt a sense of déjà vu when looking at the demonstrations that hit the streets of Cairo, Port Said and Mahalla in a week when the public finally began to protest against increases in the price of basic commodities.

Memories of the bread riots that broke out when President Anwar El-Sadat attempted to cut subsidies on a range of basic foodstuffs were never far away when, beginning last Thursday, the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya) attempted to stage the first demonstration in Cairo's Sayeda Zeinab Square. Security forces arrested around 50 Kifaya members along with a number of journalists covering the event. While those detained were held in Central Security trucks the rest of the protesters headed to the Press Syndicate to continue the protest. The heavy-handed approach adopted by the police towards the protesters prompted the Washington-based Human Rights Watch to criticise the Egyptian authorities. "Egyptian authorities are taking every opportunity to signal to citizens that when it comes to peaceful criticism of government policies forget about exercising your rights," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division.

On Saturday, the Ghad Party organised a demonstration in the Mediterranean city of Port Said, about 220 kilometres north east of Cairo. Blaming the government for the increase in prices of basic foodstuffs they carried bread and cooking oil bottles and warned the government against removing subsidies on basic commodities.

A day later 5,000 people attended a demonstration in the industrial city of Mahalla, Gharbiya governorate, 123 kilometres north of Cairo, organised by Wafd, the Nasserist Arab, Ghad and the frozen Labour parties and the Muslim Brotherhood. Raising anti-government and anti- National Democratic Party slogans, protesters accused the government of failing to raise salaries to keep pace with inflation. They warned government officials that another bread uprising could be in the offing.

The same governorate was the site of another demonstration by 300 people protesting a shortage of flour at the only bakery in the village of Kafr Hassaan.

"The government is scared of another hungry riot," argued Kifaya general coordinator Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri, who was forced by a group of plainclothes security personnel into a van and then driven with seven others to the outskirts of New Cairo. "They prevented our protest because we raised slogans that were closely related to the livelihood of people."

The prevention of peaceful demonstrations calling for a reduction in basic commodity prices, Elmessiri continued, could lead to "a populist uprising in the form of catharsis that could destroy everything". He had hoped that the government would be more rational in its response to such protests and work on reducing basic commodity prices. "This [rebellion], if it happens, will not be to the benefit of any party, the people, the government or the opposition."

Elmessiri concedes that skyrocketing commodity prices are a global phenomenon but insists that the sufferings of ordinary Egyptians are compounded by government corruption.

But could Egypt really see a repeat of the January 1977 bread riots?

"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," says Elmessiri, citing the series of labour strikes that hit the country last year. "Even [Egyptian] 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."

While opposition leaders are using an alarmist tone, Mohamed Kamal, member of the ruling National Democratic Party's Policies Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the warnings against potential riots are exaggerated.

"Egyptian society is going through a period of political and economic mobility. 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 dismisses the notion that Egyptian society is on the verge of "social upheaval" and defended the government, arguing that the rise in prices was a global phenomenon. "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."

The string of protests still sounds alarm bells for many observers. "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," Ammar Ali Hassan, director of the Middle East Studies and Research Centre, told the Weekly. "The desire to protest has overwhelmed a large sector of society."

That said, Hassan argues that although current living conditions are "much worse than 1977, 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," he said.

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