During a particularly bad week of heat and smog last summer in Cairo, I was in a cab in traffic, talking to the driver about the weather. He summed up the swelter memorably -- "Everything is yogurt" -- and the phrase has stuck. It's the first thing I hear when I think of Egypt, whether it's the heat or the many, mostly affable cabbies smoking cigarettes and flying through crazy traffic with a curious and sweaty foreigner riding shotgun.
It's not pushing 100 degrees in Cairo yet so everything is not quite yogurt. Instead, to mix the metaphor, it's bread -- for millions of Egyptians like that cab driver. They are the world's largest consumer of "aish" -- Egyptian Arabic for bread and life -- and its price and scarcity have been skyrocketing, along with other food staples like rice and pasta. Other economic staples like cement and steel have been rising, too. Look no further than Egypt, where a loaf of flat "aish" sells for less that one cent, to take stock of rising world food prices and the extent of a looming global economic crisis that is affecting far more than just American voters in an election season.
The AFP has just cited official government figures that show staple food prices "spiralling in Egypt... by 26.5 percent in a year." The World Bank and eager developers cheer Egypt's steadily growing economy -- at a rate of about 7 percent annually -- but, as is widely reported, many Egyptians are either unemployed or under-employed and nearly half of the population lives on barely $2 a day. Cheap bread is basic living.
Cairo has long subsidized bread but rising international wheat prices and black market sales of government flour are raising questions about the costs and sustainability of doing so. Bread riots 30 years ago, when the government last tried to tinker with the subsidies, killed 70 people, so officials are treading lightly.
To combat the rice and cement price problems, the government now says it's going to suspend exports of both staples for the next six months. But what about bread? State newspaper Al-Ahram reports that thousands of new bakeries are going to be built. But deadly riots have already broken out in bread lines and Hosni Mubarak last week called in the army to bake more.
Egypt gets some $2 billion a year from Washington, the second most in foreign aid after Israel. Most of it goes to the military and, as the AP notes, "it has also long been one of the top importers of American wheat, using about $54 million of that aid to buy it." But rising U.S. wheat prices has caused Egypt to look elsewhere for cheap wheat, and last week a U.S. Embassy official made clear that the "U.S. government doesn't provide any assistance towards subsidies in Egypt."
Weapons, okay. Bread, no way.
Mubarak's son and presumed successor Gamal has made a name for himself championing the liberalization of Egypt's economy. The prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, is commended by international economists for reforming and privatizing Egypt's stale, state finances. But neither man is popular in conversations in taxi cabs or, I imagine, in bread lines. Much of the Western praise, after all, skirts the fact that the same old man has been in power for the past three decades.
I remember the "everything is yogurt" line because it suggested the distinctively Egyptian sense of humor -- a teeming, dysfunctional concrete metropolis full of old cars and too much dust melting like yogurt in the summertime. Searching news updates about Egypt's bread crisis, I came across an article in Gulf News about the use of humor and sarcasm through hard times in Egypt. The reporter interviews a leading Egyptian political activist, Abdul Wahab Al Messiri, who tells a current joke, "about a poor man who stumbles upon a magic lantern."
"He rubs it, and when the genie comes out of it and asks the man about his dearest wish, his answer is: to get some loaves of bread. The genie disappears for many hours. Impatient, the poor man rubs the lantern again, only to be reprimanded by the genie for causing him to lose his place in the long queue."
Egyptian sarcasm, the article notes, often rises with hardship. These are hard times.