It was early May of this year and the anger on display outside parliament was unmistakable.
Demonstrators filled the streets to protest in favor of drastically raising the national minimum wage. Their over-arching message was that under current salaries, Egyptians simply can’t afford to feed their families.
Protesters chanted, “A kilo of meat is bought in installments,” and “Keep raising the prices. Watch the country go up in flames!”
Believe it or not, these dire warnings came months before the latest jump in food prices.
For weeks, local papers have explored in intricate detail the spiraling prices at vegetable markets. With meat already beyond the daily budgets of many Egyptians, suddenly everything now seems to be drifting out of reach.
It’s fair to say that the architects of Egypt’s socialist revolution in the 1950s never envisioned a day when the average citizen would have to think hard before buying tomatoes.
“I know my family can’t have meat everyday. We all know that,” said Mariam Abdel Aziz, a young mother shopping for produce in the Mounira district. “But now it’s really becoming impossible. I don’t know what they expect us to eat.”
According to CAPMASS, the government’s statistical authority, vegetable prices shot up 51 percent in September, while meat and poultry increased by nearly 29 percent. On the streets, that meant garlic, potatoes and beans doubled overnight; a kilo of cucumbers went from LE2 to LE5.
But the real budget-breaker was tomatoes, which spiraled more than 600 percent. Al-Masry Al-Youm reported earlier this month that a kilo of tomatoes (normally around LE2.50) was selling for LE13 in a market in Qena province.
The world took notice of Egypt’s struggles, adding a bit of international embarrassment to the crisis. An analysis posted on the website of the Financial Times dwelt at length on the irony that Egypt should be suffering such ground-level deprivation while at the same time the country is being consistently hailed as a model for developing world economic reform. The FT article listed Egypt’s familiar parade of positive macroeconomic statistics, then tartly concluded, “You can’t feed the people economic indicators.”
The culprit, according to government officials and scientists, was a harsher than usual summer, which decimated harvests and sparked sudden extreme shortages. Ayman Abu Hadid, head of the government’s Agricultural Research Center, said tomato production this summer dropped from around 45 tons per acre down to just 15.
“It’s simply because of environmental conditions, he said. “It could have happened anywhere.”
But Abu Hadid said the Ministry of Agriculture was already taking steps to prevent a repeat, including moving up the start of next year’s planting season to avoid the heart of the summer.
Others pointed to additional factors, including major inefficiencies in the local supply chain. Qena Governor Magdy Ayoub told reporters that there were too many middlemen–each one taking their cut–in between the farmer’s field and the marketplace. Ayoub called on the government to step in and make affordable produce available.
After weeks of screaming in the local press and the country’s vegetable markets, that’s just what the government did. In the second week of October, Medhat al-Meligui, head of the General Union of Producers and Exporters of Horticultural Crops, announced that 10,000 tons of vegetables would be sold at fixed prices from Ministry of Agriculture outlets. Prices would be a little higher than normal, but well down from current market value. For example, LE13 kilo of tomatoes would be sold for only LE4.75.
The government’s move may have borne some results. As of this week, tomatoes at a street market in Giza were down to around LE7 per kilo. Other vegetables had similarly dropped in price, but everything was still about 40 percent more expensive than at this time last year, according to sellers and customers.
“Thank God it’s getting better. I don’t know if what the government did worked, or if it’s just by chance,” said Adel Fuad, a tomato seller. “The last few months have been a disaster. People were shouting at me like it was my fault. Then most people just stopped eating tomatoes. They would walk by and glare at the price and not buy anything!”
One garlic seller, who gave his name only as Abu Mohamed, remained disgruntled at what he believes was government mismanagement and faulty planning.
“Another agricultural system that falls apart just because of a hot summer is a failed system.”
Abu Mohamed warned the vegetable price spike was just a signpost on the road to an increasingly grim economic future for the majority of Egyptians. As the costs of daily life becomes steadily more difficult, he said public frustration is rising to dangerous levels.
“A family can’t afford to buy tomatoes," he said. "Tomatoes, can you imagine? The government has to do something about the economic problems of the people because this is how revolutions start.”