STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
LYNN NEARY, host:
And I'm Lynn Neary.
We continue our weeklong series on the global food crisis. Today we go to Egypt. The land historically known as the bread basket of the Roman Empire has recently seen large, and occasionally violent, crowds spending much of their days standing in line attempting to buy cheap, subsidized bread.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.
PETER KENYON: The breadline has become emblematic of the financial woes facing ordinary Egyptians. It also provides a sense just how poor the poor in Egypt really are.
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KENYON: These people crowding into an alley on an early Cairo morning this month are not for the most part unemployed. In fact, many of them are civil servants who probably live near one of the numerous bakeries that sell round loaves of bread for 40 piasters, less than eight cents each. But eight-penny bread would be an outrageous extravagance in these times.
Their meager salaries are stretched so thin that they stand in line - sometimes for hours - to buy state subsidized five-piaster bread. Hosma, a 62-year-old woman, smiles shyly and says she doesn't understand why there were bread shortages recently. She doesn't keep up with the news as much as she'd like, not being able to read or write.
But she knows that her earnings - less than a dollar a day - don't even come close to covering her basic needs.
Ms. HOSMA (Egyptian Resident): (Through translator) Everyone is upset by the high prices. I work for 150 pounds a month and everything is so expensive now. People give me donations. That's how I get by. A few weeks ago we couldn't find any bread, and there used to be fights. It's also bad quality bread.
KENYON: For Egypt's poor, it's not just the indignity of the bread lines -cooking oil is up, rice is oil and meat has long been a luxury item. The local press is filled with stories of how the economic crisis is affecting people. Civil servants are now depending on bribes to make ends meet, young men are extorting protection money from small shops. One report even claims the crisis is causing Egyptians to lose their legendary sense of humor.
The pain is spreading around the region. In Tunisia and Morocco, where dissent is not tolerated, police have been deployed recently to quell food protests. In oil-rich Saudi Arabia, boycott campaigns spreading out to protest the soaring coast of staple foods. Poor people in Yemen are reportedly spending more than a quarter of their income on bread.
Food experts are warning that prices are likely to stay high in the near term and social unrest could turn into violence. Here in Egypt, Nile delta textile workers rioted this month, just as local elections were being held.
Professor Joel Beinin at the American University in Cairo says there are many factors that play here. Some are particular to Egypt, such as corruption in the distribution of subsidized wheat. Others have international roots. He says Egypt still imports a substantial amount of wheat from the U.S.
Professor JOEL BEININ (American University in Cairo): The United States pays farmers price supports not to grow wheat in order to raise the price of wheat. Second thing, which is more recent, is that a large proportion of the grain grown in the United States in recent years is being redirected to biofuels. So that too takes grain off the market and makes the price higher.
KENYON: Whatever the cause is, the effect is painful. As of last month inflation was running at 12 percent over the previous year, and that pain is being voiced on the street. There were a reported 222 strikes of job actions in 2006. That soared to 580 last year, and not just in the industrial sector. Doctors, university professors and private sector workers are also protesting.
Beinin says that should have the government worried.
Prof. BEININ: This is the core of the educated professional middle class, which has been the political class throughout the 20th century in Egypt and until now as well. When these people consider job actions and collective protests of a significant magnitude, this is potentially big trouble for the government.
KENYON: The government's response to the unrest is to make modest adjustments. President Hosni Mubarak this month ordered the lifting of tariffs on certain imports, including rice and cooking oil, and the commission is considering boosting the minimum wage for the first time in nearly a quarter century.
Critics say such measures will do little to reverse the fundamental pressures driving up food prices and anxiety levels in the Middle East.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.
NEARY: And at NPR.org you can hear other stories in our series on the impact of soaring food prices in places like China and Britain.
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NEARY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.