Dissent and desperation amid food shortages and rising prices in Egypt
Despite a widespread government crackdown on dissent, some Egyptians are resorting to drastic measures to express their desperation over the food shortages and double-digit inflation that have made many of life’s necessities hard to come by.
Nearly six years ago, a frustrated and destitute Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself ablaze, sparking a series of popular revolts across the region now collectively known as the Arab Spring.
Following on the heels of Tunisians, Egyptians took to the street in January 2011 and succeeded in overthrowing President Hosni Mubarak, the repressive military dictator who ruled the country for almost 30 years. But whereas Tunisians managed to build a functioning, if flawed, democracy in the aftermath of their revolt, Egyptians today find themselves under an even more repressive military regime coupled with dwindling food supplies and skyrocketing prices. The price of rice has gone up by 48 percent over the past year while the cost of cooking oil – which is increasingly hard to find – has gone up 32 percent.
And despite a draconian clampdown on dissent, Egyptians are increasingly expressing their desperation.
On Saturday, a 30-year-old taxi driver named Ashraf Mohammed Shaheen self-immolated in front of an army centre in Alexandria. According to press reports citing witnesses, he criticised the government and rising prices before dousing himself in gasoline and setting himself alight. He suffered burns on 95 percent of his body and was rushed to a nearby hospital. News of the incident spread quickly on social media under the Arabic hashtag #Bouazizi_Egypt, a reference to the Tunisian vendor who took similarly desperate measures nearly six years earlier.
“The economic situation in Egypt continues to intensify and worsen – and in a country where the majority is around the poverty line, that has meant the impact is felt the most by the most vulnerable,” said HA Hellyer, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Tuktuk driver goes viral
Shaheen’s desperate act followed an interview with a tuktuk driver that went viral this week after he spoke for much of the country in expressing his rage over the dire economic situation. The unidentified driver slams the government for spending millions of dollars on lavish ceremonies and mega-projects while ordinary people suffer.
“Before the latest presidential elections [in 2014] we had enough sugar, enough rice, and we even used to export it. So what happened? Where did the sugar go?” he demands. “They waste our money and spend it on so-called national projects, which are useless, and education in Egypt is very bad, even worse than you can ever imagine.”
“This country will rise if there is enough care for education, health and agriculture to provide us with food,” he says.
The interview was aired on the private, pro-government Al Hayat television channel on Wednesday evening and immediately went viral, hitting 6 million views on the channel’s official Facebook page in less than a day, according to Al-Ahram newspaper.
Al-Hayat quickly pulled the video, but by then it had been uploaded elsewhere. On another Facebook page the video racked up 2.2 million views by Thursday night, according to the Associated Press. By Sunday that number had risen to 4.4 million, with the video being shared more than 230,000 times.
The host of the show that aired the footage has since left for what the network is calling a three-week “personal vacation”, according to Egyptian media reports.
Rachel Scheier, editor-in-chief of Business Today, an English-language monthly magazine based in Cairo, told FRANCE 24 that the tuktuk driver merely echoed what she has been hearing on the streets. “People in Egypt have been getting steadily poorer since the revolution, and in the meantime prices have gone crazy,” she said.
When Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected but unpopular president, Mohamed Morsi, in June 2013, the public greeted him with outsized enthusiasm and seemingly boundless support. Sisi was elected president in 2014 with 96 percent of the vote. But as the economic situation deteriorated and inflation rose to roughly 15 percent, faith in Sisi dwindled.
“After Morsi was removed there was a feeling of goodwill and hope,” Scheier said. “But six months ago there was a palpable shift … All the government does is talk about these mega-projects; meanwhile, people can’t find enough sugar or cooking oil. You can’t buy basic foods at a reasonable price anymore.”
Calls for protest on November 11
Over the weekend another video surfaced on social media sites of a woman blaming the army for the rise in food prices – a brave move in a country where even the slightest hint of criticism of the ruling regime can land one in prison.
“What does it mean that the army says it will subsidise red meat?” She demands. “Why does the army control electricity? Why do they control gas? Why do they control the sewers?”
A Facebook page called Revolution of the Poor has been calling for mass protests on November 11, but it remains to be seen if such demonstrations can go forward in the current climate of repression.
“On the one hand, people are angry and there’s palpable discontent,” Scheier said. “On the other hand, I don’t think anybody thinks the military government is going to allow this protest to actually go anywhere.”
And the public simply may not have the stomach for another popular uprising.
“Things can change quickly in Egypt – so perhaps November 11 will surprise us all. But as of yet, it doesn’t seem like there is a lot of momentum behind them,” Hellyer said. “I think that is testimony not to the idea that the population is not hurting – it is hurting via the economic pressures – but that the space for political organisation has shrunk, and that the population is less inclined to go down the route of mass protests anyway after the tumultuous period of the last five years.”