x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Death of a baker, victim of Egypt's economic problems

Cairo baker Ali Farghaly was shot in his bakery on Sunday night, becoming a symbol of the high prices and shortages of Egypt's staple, bread, even though he sold his own products at a loss.

CAIRO // Ali Farghaly was keeping watch over his ovens in the working-class neighbourhood of Shubra al Misr on Sunday night when a group of men walked up an adjacent alleyway, broke into his bakery and shot him with a homemade pistol, witnesses said. Mr Farghaly died hours later.

In nine days of protest here, bakeries have become a flashpoint for violence and popular discontent, reflecting concerns and frustrations among the country's poor.

Mr al Farghaly, who was buried on Monday, was popular in the neighbourhood in part because he had continued to sell his bread at a loss as wheat prices rose this month, said his son, Ahmed, who sat in his darkened bakery office yesterday, surrounded by mourning neighbours.

"He was baking 24 hours a day, providing food to the people," he said.

As protests continued, Ahmed Farghaly said he feared for the safety of the bakery.

"Of course I am worried," he said. "There are some bakeries that are attacking others, trying to steal their flour."

Bread, the staple of the Egyptian diet, runs out quickly each day in bakeries across Cairo, and prices have been climbing steadily.

Medium-sized loaves sold for 75 piastres (less than Dh1) each in Shubra yesterday, an increase of between 25 and 50 per cent since last week, according to various vendors. Mr Farghaly said his bakery's small loaves sell for 25 piastres, the pre-crisis price.

Down the block, scores of people queued for subsidised bread, which was sold for 5 piastres. The queue was much longer than normal, bystanders said. Middle-aged men blocked access to reporters, saying they did not want the media to "shame" Egypt by covering its bread shortage.

Petrol, another staple of life in this car-dependent city, was also in short supply, with many service stations closed and taxi drivers reporting that they had to drive to the city's outskirts to find fuel.

The government-controlled fuel price had not increased, but the open stations were rationing fuel, said Magdy Sinaman, a taxi driver.

"We are all concerned about the gasoline running out," he said. "If it runs out, we'll all be without our livelihoods."

Egyptians have been similarly worried about all manner of essential commodities in recent days, including food and mobile phone credit. At the few ATMs that were still working in the city yesterday, as many as a hundred people queued for cash.

Many of the shortages reflected hoarding by nervous residents unsure about the country's political stability, said Ahmed al Naggar, an Egyptian economy expert at the government-funded Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"People are trying to stock up because they don't know about the future," he said. "It needs to get back to normal levels of supply and demand."

The protests would also cause at least one month's disruption to the country's tourism sector, he said, costing Egypt at least US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn), and idling hundreds of thousands of workers.

The administration of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, has publicly emphasised the damage to the economy in an effort to curtail public support for the protests, said Mr Naggar, who is a frequent critic of the government.

In the long run, he believed that change in the political system could reduce the level of cronyism and corruption that many experts say is endemic to the Egyptian economy.

In Shubra neighbourhood, residents voiced frustration with the country's current economic paralysis, with many relating a popular rumour that anti-government protesters in the city's centre were purposefully inciting the economic crisis to bring down the government.

"These protesters intend to impact the regular person so the regular person rises up against the regime," said Ashraf el Kadef, a veterinarian. "Most people who are in their 50s or 60s know how valuable it is that Mubarak built all the infrastructure of this country and provided stability."

Economic hardship was not an excuse to try to overturn the government, said Adly Badrouz, a 65-year-old retiree who was standing next to a line for subsidised bread.

"This is a plan to knock down the Egyptian economy so we feel we are needy, but it will not work," he said.