(NY Times) Bread, the (subsidized) stuff of life in Egypt
CAIRO — “Get out! Get back! Get back! I am not selling to you!” Ibrahim Ali Muhammad, a bread seller, is shouting at his customers. His teeth are brown and misshapen from decay, and he says the stress of his 20 years on the job has given him diabetes. He is standing behind bars, jail-like bars, shouting into a crowd that is pushing, punching, thrusting money at him.
“I already sold to you,” he screamed, again, this time distracted by a young man in a blue windbreaker who swiveled on his heels and punched the man behind him.
It is hard to make ends meet in Egypt, where about 45 percent of the population survives on just $2 a day. That is one reason why trying to buy subsidized bread can be a fierce affair, with fists and elbows flying, men shoving and little children dodging blows to get up to the counter.
Egypt also is a state where corruption is widely viewed as systemic, which is also why the crowd gets aggressive trying to buy up the subsidized bread. Cheap state bread can be resold, often for double the original price.
“What has not changed in Egypt for 50 years is not going to change now,” Muhammad said, though it was unclear if he meant the chaos in front of him or the cheap bread cooking behind him.
Somehow, much of what ails Egypt seems to converge in the story of subsidized bread. It speaks to a state that is in many ways stuck in the past, struggling to pull itself into the future, unable or unwilling to conquer corruption or even to persuade people to care about one another.
How do you take a broken system that somehow helps feed 80 million people and fix it without causing social disorder? That is a challenge for Egypt at large, and for this little bakery where Muhammad ekes out a living, with a cigarette hanging from his lips and an angry crowd demanding his bread.
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