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Sun, Sep 21, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Shortage of bread in Egypt could reach crisis level

AFP , CAIRO

Egyptians are growing worried about a shortage of bread gripping the country, especially with children returning to school.

The situation is to worsen since summer holidays ended yesterday and hundreds of thousands of children have returned to the classroom.

Newspapers have for days been reporting shortages of bread, which is subsidized by the state. Long lines of customers have formed outside bakeries.

Observers say the problem stems from a national flour shortage caused by a below-average wheat harvest, technical problems at mills and higher international wheat prices.

The Egyptian government says it has taken action to solve the problem which started several weeks ago.

"Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued directives to increase daily bread production by 10 percent to attain 210 million loaves per day," Information Minister Safwat Sherif told reporters Wednesday.

Bread is one of 25 essential food items subsidized by the state. It is supposed to sell for five piasters (less than US$0.01) a loaf.

An increase in the price in 1977 provoked violent protests that were dubbed the "bread riots."

One customer in a working-class Cairo neighborhood near the Great Pyramids said the shortage of government-subsidized bread amounted to a "crisis" for some people.

"It's difficult to find a bakery that sells bread at the government price," Said said, adding that the cheapest his wife could find most days was 10 piasters.

He said he also suspects the loaves are getting smaller.

In the capital's Dokki neighborhood, a woman dressed in black robes and black headscarf was visibly upset when a bakery stopped selling subsidized bread at the noon deadline.

"What's this? I've been waiting 10 minutes and when my turn comes, they tell me there's no bread," she screamed.

One Cairo baker, Gamal Ibrahim, said that the shortage of the round, flat bread was partly "due to the sale of subsidized flour on the black market."

But he said the government had pledged to step up deliveries of subsidized flour starting yesterday to meet an expected rise in demand due to children returning to school.

"Long lines have been forming for about a month," he said as around a dozen people stood outside his shop.

Magdi Issa, vice president of the Cereal Industries Union, said 1 tonne of subsidized flour is sold for 400 Egyptian pounds less than the market price to some 3,500 of the 6,800 bakeries across the country.

The liberal opposition daily Al-Wafd complained that, with the return to school approaching, "a state of emergency has been declared in all homes" which are suffering from rising costs of school items, including uniforms.

Bankers in Cairo say the cost of living has risen by 10 percent for the poorest people and some 20 percent for the middle class, as the pound sterling continues a long devaluation and the cost of imports trickles through.

"All the problems in Egyptian society -- education, bread, unemployment, population density, or economic -- are a result of the population explosion," Mubarak said.

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