Sweet-Toothed Egypt Endures a Sugar Crisis: 'People Are Going to Snap'
CAIRO — Egyptians pile sugar into mugs of tea by the spoonful — or three or five. A staple long subsidized by the government for most of the population, sugar is the chief ingredient of the national pudding, Om Ali. It can feel like the only ingredient. It is also a prime reason that nearly a fifth of Egyptians have diabetes.
So a weekslong sugar shortage has plunged people into a panic. The sugar crisis, as it is known, has quickly become shorthand for the brewing anger against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's management of the economy and his overall rule.
"The people are going to snap," Ahmad el-Gebaly said as he turned away customers seeking sugar he did not have at his subsidized-goods store in Bulaq, a working-class neighborhood of Cairo.
"Nobody can stand him anymore," he added of Mr. Sisi. "Sugar is like rice and oil and wheat. You can never run out of it. You can never mess with it. Who can live without sugar?"Still reeling from the political turbulence and militant attacks that followed the 2011 uprising, Egypt's economy is in free fall. Its pound is now worth 6 cents on the black market, about half its value a year ago.
Tourism has collapsed, remittances from Egyptian workers in the Persian Gulf have dropped and revenue from the Suez Canal has fallen. Inflation reached a seven-year high of 15.5 percent in August. Saudi Arabia delayed a shipment of discount petroleum products this month, setting off fears of a deteriorating relationship with an ally that has propped up Egypt with more than $25 billion since Mr. Sisi came to power in 2014.
Sugar is not the only scarce staple, as the plummeting pound has slashed Egypt's import-purchasing power. Cooking oil disappeared from shelves for a time this year, residents said, as did baby formula, and rice is in low supply. Some people complained that they could not find certain medicines, or that the prices had skyrocketed.
Mr. Sisi, under pressure to overhaul the economy, has been blamed for the shortages in subsidies for sugar and other products that Egyptians have relied on since World War I. He reduced the subsidies' share of the budget this year by 14 percent, to about $8.7 billion, according to the government-run news website Ahram Online.
These cuts and other actions were "inevitable to save the economic situation," Mr. Sisi said in a recent interview with a state-owned newspaper. He described the current situation as a "bottleneck" and promised, "We are on our way out."
But people are not patient. They are desperate. The official price for sugar is more than 15 cents per pound, up from 6 cents per pound two years ago, and on the black market it goes for triple that. Small shops ran out of sugar weeks ago, and upscale markets are rationing it to one kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, per person.
The government created a hotline for residents to report hoarders, and the police arrested a man on Sunday for possession of 10 kilograms of sugar, the Egyptian state news media reported.
"It is the worst shortage I can remember in my lifetime," said H. A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a research organization based in Washington. "I think what everybody is worried about is a repeat of the 1977 bread riots."
Dr. Hellyer was referring to the nationwide protests that followed attempts by Anwar el-Sadat, then the president, to dismantle the subsidy system.
It was the only attempt, said Amro Ali, an associate professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. The subsidies, he added, were untouchable. "It's kryptonite," he said.
Today, 88 percent of Egyptians — about 80 million people — can buy subsidized food through government-issued electronic cash cards. In a country where a quarter of the population lives in poverty and millions of workers barely have enough for basic expenses, the cards are a lifeline. The government also subsidizes water, electricity and gas for all.
Ahmed Kamal, an aide to the minister responsible for the subsidies, blamed the private sector, a scarcity of Egyptian hard currency and rising global prices for the sugar shortage. He said that private importers were expected to bring in some of the 800,000 tons of sugar that Egypt must purchase from abroad annually, about a quarter of the nation's yearly demand for 3.2 million tons, but that the country had fallen short of its goal this year.
Mr. Kamal said the problem had been exacerbated by business owners hoarding supplies and by the news media whipping up angst. He added that the government still had a four-month supply of sugar.
But little of it was available in Bulaq, the Cairo neighborhood where Mr. Gebaly's shop was the only subsidized grocery reliably open — and he mostly turned people away.
"All I say, all day, is: 'There's no sugar, there's no sugar, there's no sugar, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow,' " Mr. Gebaly said, before he was interrupted by a call of another customer asking for sugar. An older man waiting nearby gave up, grumbling: "You keep saying, tomorrow! Tomorrow!"
Residents said that the other six shops in the neighborhood that were licensed to sell subsidized goods had closed to avoid a police crackdown, but that they sometimes opened after hours to sell sugar illegally to small-time confectioners, cafes and people. The subsidy police have already arrested two neighborhood sugar traders, residents said.
Sumaya Oweis, 37, said she had stopped making her beloved sweet rice pudding and had cut down on tea. On a recent morning, she smacked her 4-year-old son after he stuck his hand in the sugar bowl. But what was she to do about her husband?
"May God destroy his mother's house!" Ms. Oweis groaned, slapping her palms to her face. "He has sugar in everything!"
For Ms. Oweis, like many residents, the sugar shortage came after months of growing hardship. Her husband, an itinerant worker, struggled to make $2 a day, she said. They are eating less because they cannot keep up with rising prices for food, like potatoes, which cost about 26 United States cents a pound now, up from about 5 cents several weeks ago.
"I'm losing weight," she said, pointing to her skinny arms. Her subsidized birth-control pills had disappeared off the shelves for a few weeks this year. When they returned to the market, Ms. Oweis said, the price for a month's supply had increased to $2 from $1.30.
Perhaps the shortage of sugar is somewhat of a blessing, given Egypt's problems with obesity and diabetes, wrote Mohammed Nosseir, a liberal politician.
The sugar shortage, "estimated at 80 percent, probably represents the amount of sugar we need to reduce in terms of consumption," Mr. Nosseir wrote in an editorial on the Daily News Egypt website. "If they consume reasonable amounts, Egyptians could easily afford to purchase unsubsidized sugar."
A teenager tried to make a similar point at Mr. Gebaly's shop. "I found out why there's no sugar!" he called out. "So nobody gets diabetes!" Everybody ignored him.
Videos about the crisis have been shared widely on social media.
In one, a tuk-tuk driver, identified as Moustafa Abdou in the Egyptian news media, ranted against Mr. Sisi. "Before the presidential elections, we had enough sugar," he said in the clip, which aired last week on the privately owned Al-Hayat television channel. It was quickly removed from the channel's Facebook page, but was viewed 4.7 million times on another Facebook page.
"They go on TV and they say Egypt is rising," Mr. Abdou said. "And the poor citizen cannot find a kilo of rice on the street."
In another video, a man set himself on fire in Alexandria, screaming after he set himself alight: "I can't afford to eat."
Mr. Ali, the sociologist, said it was the first public self-immolation since the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
"It shows you that the core problems have yet to be resolved," he said.
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the United States dollar equivalent of the Egyptian pound on the black market. The pound is worth 6 cents, not 0.06 cents.
-- Sent from my monopoly-free Linux system.
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