- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

CAIRO (AP) — It’s a sore point for a country struggling to contain bread riots: Bakeries that get government-sub- sidized flour often sell it on the black market at a huge profit, taking food from poor people’s mouths.

However, in Egypt — notorious for low wages and corruption — bakery workers say they have little choice but to steal the flour and sell it, both to feed their families and to pay the crushing bribes demanded by government officials and police.

The bread crisis here has largely been fueled by the worldwide increase in food prices, which has pushed more people to rely on subsidized bread in an impoverished country where 20 percent of the 76 million population live on less than $1 a day. The result has been bread shortages and riots by customers waiting in long lines at subsidized bakeries.

The crisis, however, has also highlighted the petty corruption pervading Egyptian life — from bakeries to hospitals to police stations — that many who earn meager paychecks maintain is the only way to make ends meet.

In one poor district of Cairo, a government official in charge of a public bakery shows his paycheck. After 20 years in his position, he earns about $55 a month, including supposed bonuses.

“I have to steal. How would I survive without stealing?” the official, a father of eight, told the Associated Press.

He admitted that he regularly sells a portion of his bakery’s subsidized wheat on the black market. The government provides a ration of wheat to state-run bakeries at a subsidized price of about $1.50 for each 110-pound bag. The wheat is supposed to produce bread that sells for less than 1 cent per loaf. But many bakeries sell some of it to private bakeries at up to $37 a bag.

Bakery employees pocket part of the difference. Part, though, is used to pay off government inspectors — from the police, the Supply Ministry, the city government and local councils — each of whom demands a bribe.

“I just have to give bribes to most of them, or they would file fines or close the bakery,” said the official, whose bakery receives 68 bags of subsidized flour every day.

A senior security official involved in government crackdowns on the black-market wheat said public bakeries often sell off up to half the subsidized wheat they receive. He also acknowledged that many inspectors pocket bribes from bakers.

“Now if I’m an inspector and you, the baker, give me 1,000 pounds [$180] a month while my salary is 200 pounds [$37] a month, wouldn’t I sell my conscience?” he said.

Unless the government “feeds the people, they will keep on stealing and receiving bribes,” said the security official.

One baker, Mohammed Abdel-Salam, said he used to work for a private firm that bought subsidized flour from public-sector bakeries.

“Very late at night or in the early hours of the morning, I used to go to the big public bakery and pick up three or four sacks of flour” for $37 each, he said. Private bakeries sell bread at market rates, up to 25 times the subsidized price.

But Mr. Abdel-Salam said he quit his job when his private bakery was forced to shut down after the government tightened its control over wheat in recent days.

In response to the bread shortages, the government ordered the military — which runs its own bakeries to feed troops — to start selling subsidized bread to the public. It also opened hundreds more distribution points around the country and sought to crack down on the wheat black market.

As a result, the lines at public bakeries have eased in Cairo, although they persist in many provinces.

However, the bread crisis and rising food prices have deepened discontent over low wages.

Riots recently broke out in the northern city of Mahalla al-Kobra, where workers at state textile factories have staged a series of strikes for higher wages in the past year. After the rioting, the government gave bonuses to the workers and promised to meet their demands on raises and health benefits.

Recent news media reports said President Hosni Mubarak would order an increase in minimum salaries for public workers at a meeting of the National Council of Salaries, which oversees wages..

Few people, though, believe the fatter paychecks will do much to reduce the corruption that has long been a way of life in Egypt.

At Cairo’s airport, police take bribes from taxi drivers to limit which cabs can pick up fares. At police stations, people seeking official paperwork must slip an officer money.

Unless ambulance workers get their obligatory “tips,” patients might not reach the emergency rooms in public hospitals on time — and once there, patients must be sure to gave nurses a gratuity — “baksheesh” in Arabic — just to get basic care. In schools, nearly all Egyptian students face pressure from their teachers to pay for “private lessons” after school hours.

Galal Amin, an economist at the American University in Cairo, said corruption in Egypt is a “law that cannot be violated.”

“The bribe, big and small, for public employees is not only expected, but obligatory,” he wrote in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. “Bribes are given and received openly, without embarrassment. An employee considers it part of his monthly salary.”

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