On Monday, March 6, small protests about plans to change the rations system for bread broke out in Egypt. By Tuesday, the number of protesters had swelled to hundreds in multiple cities across the country.
Security forces were uncharacteristically calm in their dealings with the protesters – mainly, perhaps, because many were elderly women – and ended up handing out free loaves of bread in some areas rather than suppressing the demonstrations with force.
These are the first significant protests directly related to the recent surge in prices brought about by economic reforms. They had been expected and more could follow.
The main gripe of the protesters was a change to the number of loaves allocated to each family using ration cards.
According to Reuters, there are two cards issued to the public. The normal plastic smart cards allow each family to buy five subsidised loaves of bread each day. There are also temporary paper cards issued to people waiting to receive the smart cards.
Bakers are authorised to sell bread at subsidised rates to customers with these temporary cards, but the government announced last week that the ration for them would be decreased from five loaves to three.
This move was meant to reduce the misuse of the temporary cards – bakers saying they sell more than they really do in order to benefit off of the subsidy.
Supply Minister Ali Moselhy apologised to citizens who had not received their bread due to the change and assured Egyptians that “every citizen has a right to bread.”
Videos posted online showed crowds blocking tram lines and railway tracks in the cities of Alexandria and Desouk. Protests also took place in Giza and the Minya governorate.
Understandably, the protests mostly took place in working class neighbourhoods, where the rising price of goods has had the biggest effect on livelihoods.
These protests come at a critical time for Egypt. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is in the process of appraising the progress made on the reform agenda as part of the decision to release a second disbursal of the $12bn loan.
Although the IMF’s delegation has been postponed until April, any adverse effects of further protests, such as the slowdown of further reform implementations, poses significant risk to the loan programme and may prompt the IMF to freeze the second loan tranche – as was the case with Tunisia where the IMF has usually been rather lenient.
With the country having limited room to manoeuvre, this is likely not the first episode of rationalising food subsidies or inflationary reform action.
This forms part of the government’s aim to replace poorly targeted subsidies with programmes that directly support poor households.
There has been declining trend in riots and protests during President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s time in office.
Analysts have ascribed the decline to the ratcheting up of repression against civil society and a general disengagement with politics. However, as 2011 and 2013 showed, the situation can change rapidly.
Mr Sisi is undoubtedly aware of this. The prompt apology by Mr Moselhy and the soft approach taken by the police show that he knows to handle the situation with care.
The situation warrants close watching as Mr Sisi’s popularity is low and the effects of the austerity measures are likely to persist for some time yet.
In 2011, protesters chanted “bread, freedom, social justice.” Bread was their first demand.