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My friends are preparing a group artwork to honor the people that have died during the demonstrations in Egypt. Among those who have died was one of their friends; Ahmed Bassiouni, a video and sound artist, musician, assistant teacher at the faculty of arts education in Cairo and a father of two children. He was shot during the demonstrations on the 28th of January.

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Bread, art and politics; how can these be possibly related? Somehow they are I found out a few days ago. I already knew that bread and politics are closely linked in Egypt as supplying cheap bread has been a key principle of government policy for decades as it is regarded crucial for ensuring social stability. Bread is the cheapest as well as most important food item in Egyptian diets.

Since WWII Egypt has provided basic necessities such as vegetable oil, kerosene, sugar, bread and tea to its population as a way to assist the people with coping with inflation and scarcity resulting from the war. In the 1960s and 1970s the food subsidy system expanded and became part of broader social welfare programs which included subsidies for non-food items and services such as transport, housing, soap and cigarettes. Where under Nasser government spending on consumer subsidies was modest, under Sadat the share of government spending on subsidies accounted for 14% of total government expenditures in 1981 and included as much as 18 food commodities. As part of the Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Program (ERSAP) there was a sharp decrease in consumer subsidies between 1990 and 1994 and the establishment of a free exchange market. However, the subsidy on bread was not removed and is still heavily subsidised today.

A man carrying bread from the bakery to the subsidized bread shop

Here people are buying bread at one of the government subsidized bread stalls. Bread is being spread on the car to cool down as it comes straight from the bakery around the corner.

Men waiting for their bread to cool down

Two girls catching up while waiting for their bread to cool down

Two thirds of Egyptians eat subsidised bread and the state meets 96% of the cost. About 85% of Egypt’s bread is said to be subsidised, this equals about 230 million loaves a day. I normally buy three loafs of unsubsidised bread at the local bakery for 1 Egyptian pound (EGP) (equal to US$0.18 or €0.14); subsidised bread only costs  5 piaster a piece so 15 piaster for 3 loafs of bread (equal to US$0.026 or €0.021). This makes subsidised bread seven times cheaper than unsubsidised bread. This raises questions about the long term economic sustainability of the subsidy system and also raises questions about vulnerability to the c word which I should probably not mention here (the word ends with orruption…). However making changes to this subsidy system in a country where 40% of the population live on less than $2 a day can create volatile situations. This fragile state became visible in April 2008 when bread shortages, as a result of the surge in food prices, sparked civil unrest. Some people lost their lives and many were wounded.

What has art got to do with this? I haven’t quite found out the details yet but I came across this piece of art when I visited the 33rd General Exhibition 2010 in the Palace of Arts here in Cairo.

As you can see it depicts Egyptians from different social classes all over Egypt. Laid out in front of them are hundreds of loafs of bread or Baladi Aish as they’re called here; the type of bread that is subsidised and distributed by the government. Clearly the artist had some sort of socio-political commentary. Unfortunately I can only guess as to what his or her reasons are for making this piece of art. There was no name tag or a description of the work to be found. But I am determined to find out more about this piece of work and the artist who made it as I’m eager to get an insider’s view on this issue. As soon as I’ve managed to find out more about the artist and the meaning of his/her work I will share it here.

To be continued…

Sources I used for this blog:

Allam, A. and D. Williams. (2008). “Egypt’s Rising Food Prices Swell Bread Lines, Deficit.”   Retrieved 26 May, 2009, from http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601110&sid=amxCfY1PA_ek.

EIU (2008). Egypt Country Profile 2008. London, Economist Intelligence Unit.

Gutner, T. (1999). The Political Economy of Food Subsidy Reform in Egypt, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

ISFP (2009). Country responses to the food security crisis: Nature and preliminary implications of the policies pursued. M. Demeke, G. Pangrazio and M. Maetz. Rome, Agricultural Policy Support Service, Food and Agriculture Organization.

McGreal, C. (2008). “Egypt: bread shortages, hunger and unrest.”   Retrieved 1 July, 2010, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/may/27/food.egypt.

Slackman, M. (2008). “Egypt’s Problem and Its Challenge: Bread Corrupts.”   Retrieved 1 July, 2010, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/17/world/africa/17bread.html

All the photos posted on my blog are owned by me and they should not be used without my permission

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